The Australian Financial Review, 9 March 2015
By Vicki Thomson
A compromise which is a solution for only one party, is, by definition, no compromise at all.
The only “winner”, if one of the new so-called compromise positions on the de-regulation of higher education fees just happens to luck its way through the Senate in coming weeks, will be political expediency.
The losers are all university students, Australia’s economic future and good public policy.
That is not to say that the so-called compromise positions floating around Canberra should not be researched thoroughly, considered thoroughly and debated thoroughly.
One may be worthy of support – in time.
Due process is the crucible of good public policy. Good public policy is not attempting to ram something, anything, through the Senate, on an impossibly tight time frame of its own making, simply to enable the Abbott government to claim a much-needed political win.
The future of the higher education sector, Australia’s third-highest export earner, is far too critical, far too valuable to the nation, for such political behaviour. The sector needs long-term sustainable funding, a decision born out of process not panic.
The group of eight universities (Go8) educates more than 25 per cent of Australia’s higher education students. It has some 30,000 research students, and accounts for two-thirds of all research output in Australia.
As the group of universities which educates more than 62 per cent of Australia’s doctors and vets, and more than 40 per cent of Australia’s engineers we cannot afford to have quality outcomes for our universities compromised by poor funding decisions.
The Go8 made its decision to support deregulation after more than three years of intense research into the sector’s future funding needs in the face of the deregulation of student places by the previous Labor government.
That decision therefore was, and remains, no whim. Rather there has been copious evidence-based research and much modelling by the Go8. As a result, the Go8 continues to strongly support the government’s existing fee deregulation package in the face of heavy lobbying to accept a compromise.
Why? It’s not recalcitrance on the Go8’s part, far from it. It’s purely common sense coupled with a desire to ensure that politically expedient solutions do not create a plethora of unintended consequences embedded in legislation. If that occurs, both a damaged sector and any future government will be faced with unwinding that legislation.
The sector desperately needs the correct long-term solution to its funding issues. It does not need the wrong solution, for that is no solution at all. So, what of those compromises that are suddenly so worthy? The answer is how do we really know?
What we do know, from the short time available, is that they seem complicated, and require a great deal of new regulation to implement. One pushes more funds into government consolidated revenue rather than quarantining it for student benefit. That is unacceptable.
The new “solutions” have not had time to be carefully considered by government, nor the sector. There has been no time. In the space of less than three weeks, whispers there could be compromises being discussed became fact, and fact just as quickly became policy direction, and policy direction based on a few pages of work and less than a day before two senate committees has suddenly become “better than nothing”.
Really? Is this how Australia now develops policy? This is policy that will affect every university and every university student, for many years.
We again implore the Senate, and in particular the independent crossbenchers, to seriously consider the package of reforms before it. The amended legislation includes significant improvements which address community concerns and deliver important student protections.
It would be courageous to consider that defeat of this legislation, or even any compromise position, can deliver a lasting solution for the sector and, importantly, its students
It’s worth noting, although some beg to differ, that the scheme that underpinned HECS – the income contingent loan scheme for students – was first floated by economist Milton Friedman as an investment by government in young people, to be paid back from later income.It was 25 years before this was adopted by then Labor education minister John Dawkins.
The sector cannot wait 25 years for its funding issue to be resolved, but surely it deserves more than 25 days of policy consideration to change concept drawings to real plans for the future.