'Medieval' Campaign To Block Higher Ed Reforms Spreads


A campaign at the University of Sydney aimed at frustrating the Coalition government’s planned changes to the higher education sector has started to catch on at other universities, with similar efforts now being pursued at the Australian National University.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) has seized on the initiative of a group of University of Sydney Senate fellows who are petitioning the Chancellor to convene a meeting of the Convocation, at which staff and graduates would debate a motion condemning Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s plans to deregulate the sector.

The Convocation's roots date back to the medieval universities of Europe. 

Moves are now afoot at the Australian National University to mirror the campaign being run at Sydney, with the local NTEU branch supporting a student initiated campaign calling for a meeting of the Convocation to be convened.

In a post on the NTEU’s website, ACT Division Secretary Stephen Darwin said ANU Vice-Chancellor Ian Young’s support of the reforms amounted to a “failure of leadership”.

“The ANU Community must be allowed to legitimately determine their stance on fee deregulation, as the reputation of ANU is being potentially compromised by the radical stance being adopted by the Vice-Chancellor,” he wrote.

“It will be an historic opportunity for the ANU community to express their views to the Council, the university administration and the nation's parliament.”

A spokesperson for ANU Vice-Chancellor Ian Young echoed the sentiments of University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence, claiming such a meeting would not be practical.

“Other than being a large meeting, it has no formally defined role and no decision making or advisory purpose,” the spokesperson said.

“We haven't been able to find any record of the University holding a Convocation, but we have estimated that more 100,000 people are eligible members of Convocation.”

In spite of the criticisms levelled by the Vice-Chancellors, NTEU National President Jeannie Rea wrote to branches around the country last week claiming 12 universities still have Convocation style provisions in their governing rules, and encouraged other branches to follow Sydney’s lead by petitioning for a meeting.

The calls for greater consultation come in the wake of consistent support for deregulation from the vice-chancellors of the prestigious ‘Group of Eight’ (Go8) universities – Australian National University, Monash University, the University of Adelaide, the University of Melbourne, the University of New South Wales, the University of Queensland, the University of Sydney and the University of Western Australia – who are set to gain the most from a deregulated sector.

The Vice-Chancellors at both the University of Sydney and ANU have taken issue with some of the changes being proposed by the Coalition, including plans to decrease the amount of money provided by the Commonwealth towards the cost of a student’s degree, but have broadly supported efforts to uncap costs.

The changes proposed by Pyne would allow universities to charge domestic students the same fees as international students, who currently pay a far higher price for the same degree.

They would also tie the interest rate on HECs debt to the bond rate, lower the repayment threshold, and see large sums of Commonwealth funding start to flow to private, for-profit higher education providers.

Some of the $1.1 billion in savings would be put towards scholarships for disadvantaged students.

Serious concern have been raised about the impact the changes would have on student debt levels with NATSEM modelling predicting women will be particularly badly impacted.

In a blog post in May, Young warned against increasing the interest on HECs debts.

“I think this is a really important issue to look at because if the interest rate does increase significantly, as has been proposed, this could have very negative equity outcomes for some students,” he said

Rea said Convocation was one way to raise awareness of the impacts of the government’s proposed changes.

“While many people have talked about the budget changes as the biggest since the unified national system was introduced in the Dawkins era, a quarter of a century ago… I think it’s even more serious than that,” Rea told New Matilda.

“I think it does go back to the very foundations on which we established public universities in this country.”

In the place of a meeting of the Convocation, Young has instead offered to host a student forum about the proposed changes.

A spokesperson for the University of Sydney previously told New Matilda a university-wide consultation on the changes would take place soon.

Pyne’s plans are expected to be introduced to Parliament after sitting is resumed in late August.

With the Greens and Labor opposed to the measures, and the PUP seemingly on the same page, it appears at least some negotiations will be needed to get any of the package through the Senate.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.