Armed to the teeth with recommendations from the Commission of Audit and the Kemp-Norton review, Education Minister Christopher Pyne appears poised to prosecute an agenda of fee deregulation and reform within the tertiary education sector. On Thursday, ensconced in Monash University’s Diamond Deposition Suite, he announced: “[Universities] would need to continuously improve the teaching and learning they offer to attract students”.
But Pyne’s optimism breezes over a very real danger: that increasing fees and reducing the debt threshold (the amount of money you must be earning before you start repaying your student debt) could prevent many of the students with the greatest need ever making it to university.
Besides the odd student demonstration on Q and A, the pushback against Pyne has been rather muted. The Education Minister finds himself not only flanked by a cherry-picked clique of government consultants, but a choir of vice-chancellors singing praise for economic rationalist reform.
Arguably the most vociferous VCs are those attached to the prestigious Group of Eight, a coalition of elite tertiary institutions. Stepping down from their ivory towers, vice-chancellors Professor Ian Young and Fred Hilmer have taken to News Corp and Fairfax respectively to advocate for less regulation, more competition and a movement towards an education model based on that of the US.
Shut out from the conversation, however, are the regional and rural universities that take on the lion’s share of students from low socio-economic backgrounds. In 2012, more than 30 per cent of domestic undergraduates studying on campuses associated with the Regional Universities Network (RUN) came from a low socioeconomic background. By comparison, 9.88 per cent of UNSW students, 8.64 per cent of Sydney University students and 4.96 per cent of ANU students were from low SES backgrounds.
It is these regional universities that will feel the brunt of fee deregulation and cuts to higher education. In a submission to the Kemp-Norton review in December 2013, RUN warned that any re-examination of government contributions to higher education, the current repayment threshold, or student loans may “disproportionately disadvantage” the “relatively high proportion of students at RUN universities enroll[ed]in nursing, teaching and social work programs”.
To the detriment of RUN, the Coalition’s key consultants took hard, contrary and reformist positions on higher education. The Commission of Audit recommended the average contribution paid by student increase from 41 per cent to 55 per cent and that the HELP-debt repayment drop from $51,309 to the minimum wage, $32,354.
Former federal member for Lyne, Rob Oakeshott, told New Matilda that “the real stinger” was the lowering of the HELP-repayment threshold and suggested that it would significantly affect students’ decisions to participate in higher education.
In a statement responding to the recommendations made by the Commission of Audit, RUN similarly warns that reducing the threshold would “significantly impact on lower and single income households, particularly in regional Australia where salaries are considerably lower”.
Fee increases will also have a significant impact on students from rural and regional areas, who face lower tertiary education participation rates, in comparison to their metropolitan counterparts (a report published by the Australian Council for Educational Research in 2010 revealed that only 39 per cent of secondary students in provincial areas and 32 per cent in remote areas intended to pursue tertiary studies, compared to 63 per cent of young people in urban areas).
According to Professor Peter Lee, chair of the RUN group, “Regional students face higher costs than city-based students” due to expenses associated with relocation and “higher living expenses”.
This means that even if deregulatory policy initiatives enhance the international competitiveness of the nation’s top-ranked academies, their overall impact on economic and social stratification is likely to undermine any advantages accrued.
Some vice-chancellors at larger metropolitan based universities acknowledge this. “Fees at those levels would exacerbate a social, geographical and economic divide from which Australia would never recover”, warned University of Technology Vice-Chancellor Ross Milbourne in a piece in The Australian.
In 2011, 31 per cent of people aged 25-64 who lived in major cities held a Bachelor’s degree; only 18 per cent of Australians living in inner regional areas could say the same. In outer regional areas, this number dropped to 15 per cent; in very remote areas, 12 per cent.
National Union of Students national regional and small campuses officer, Jack Boyd, linked the lack of education in regional areas to other social issues, including youth unemployment.
“With youth unemployment at just under 13 per cent and some regional areas experiencing youth unemployment rates of up to 20 per cent, the inability to find appropriate employment is a major concern for regional students”, he said.
Troubling too are the proposed cuts to grant programs assisting regional and rural universities. The Commission of Audit has slated the Collaborative Research Network, which provides funding for smaller, regional universities to collaborate on research projects with larger institutions, for the chopping block. It’s a move that is strongly opposed by the Rural Universities Network. “For [a]relatively modest cost it has assisted our universities: attract outstanding researchers, enhance the profile of research, increase research publications and funding, and develop collaborative partnerships with industry and the community”, Lee said.
Oakeshott described the proposed changes as “massively regressive”, though noted that researching funding in Australia was “messy” and required reform.
Shortchanging regional universities to boost our already high-achieving sandstone schools will not assist communities in need. Even a generous expansion of scholarship programs to assist regional access to metropolitan universities would do little to help diversify rural industries or increase regional development.
“Two thirds of graduates from [RUN] universities work in regional Australia”, Lee told New Matilda. “The best way to keep professional in the regions is to train them in the regions.”
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