On Thursday night, the National Tertiary Education Union hosted the forum “Deregulation, regulation or…? – A public discussion about the future of Australia’s Universities”. The speakers included Deputy Greens Leader Adam Bandt and Vice Chancellor Glyn Davis. The NTEU billed the topic as “Voters have repeatedly endorsed governments that cut funding to education. So how do we sustain a demand-driven system while maintaining a regulated price?”
Late last month, the Senate defeated Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s Higher Education and Research Reform Bill for the second time. The legislation would have allowed universities to set their own tuition fees. However, it failed to win support from crossbenchers, who argued that that it would intencrease inequalities. One outcome of the Senate’s rejection was the withdrawal of support for the government’s bill from the Group of 8 – a coalition of leading Australian universities of which Glyn Davis is a board member. The Group of 8 declared that it no longer supported the bill because if Pyne continues to endeavour to pass it through “watering it down”, it will lose its ultimate purpose of making tuition fees and research funding more sustainable.
The public discussion was an opportunity for Glyn Davis to explain and specify his position. Davis begun on a friendly note, congratulating Bandt on the Greens’ 2013 election tertiary education policy that included a “10% increase in funding” and “a reversal of Labour’s $2.5B cuts.” He then lamented that the reality was that “whoever won the 2013 election, we knew we were in for a kick in the teeth,” pointing out that the cuts in 2012 and 2013 meant that Melbourne Uni lost $40m, which he said amounted to around 350 staff being sacked. Davis claimed that the grim lesson of the 2013 election was that seeing as “70% of Australians voted for parties committed to cutting higher education…a feeling still runs deep in our society that university students are well privileged” and taxpayers are reluctant to pay for them. Davis was very emphatic that he did not have “an abstract argument” but was responding to the “unambiguous reality…that we cannot rely on governments to support our higher education system.”
Bandt warned that fee deregulation would “increase social stratification.” He cited research of the risk that uncapping university fees would split the tertiary education sector into a two tier system where elite universities flourish at the expense of low-cost alternatives that produce less valuable degrees. “19% of the people that go to VU are from low socio-economic backgrounds, 18% of the people at La Trobe are from low socio-economic and here it’s 7%. That’s the kind of disparity that you will see spread out across the Group of 8 versus other universities,” he said.
He also claimed that there was a very real risk of fee deregulation widening the gender pay gap. He used the example of how charging interest rates on HECs could mean “a woman who studies teaching and then potentially takes time out of the paid workforce” could “spend 6 and a half years longer paying off her debt”.
Trying to brush off the accusation that his contention was based on purely abstract arguments as Glyn Davis seemingly implied, Bandt finished with the question “how do we get out of this environment of high fees, cuts to university funding and job losses…without fee deregulation?”. He listed alternative policies that could generate funds for universities such as charging “the mining sector the same as other companies for the use of diesel fuel” and making the deficit levy which charges 2% on incomes over $180,000 permanent.
There have been a variety of attitudes within the Melbourne University student community towards Glyn Davis’ decision to accept fee-deregulation as unavoidable rather than join more militant Vice Chancellors, like Stephen Parker from Australian University of Canberra, in opposing it. The spectrum of responses to the VC’s stance ranges from Liberal Students’ Federation Secretary Matthew Lesh saying that without uncapping tuition fees “universities cannot raise the revenue necessary to educate students” to UMSU Education (Academic Affairs) Officer Shanley Price saying that “it would be valuable for universities to be on the same side as students”.