Turnbull’s Higher Education Reforms Will Do More Just Jack Up Fees At Sandstone Colleges

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Australia has long had an egalitarian system of higher education, but the Turnbull Government’s recycled reforms threaten to elevate inequality, writes John Eldridge.

In declaring its intention to persist with higher education reform, the Turnbull government has revived the debate surrounding the proposals in the 2014 budget.

Those reforms – chief among them giving institutions free rein in setting the level of tuition fees for domestic undergraduates – were the subject of widespread criticism on the basis that they would restrict access to higher education and place unmanageable debt burdens upon graduates.

Those claims may be well founded. But it was surprising that the debate surrounding the 2014 proposals almost entirely missed the impact the proposals would have on the stratification of university education.

Up until now, undergraduate education in Australian universities has been largely cast from a common mould. Though many students aspire to study at the oldest and highest-ranked universities, in reality the differences between our grandest and humblest institutions are almost totally irrelevant to an undergraduate.

The rigid national funding model has meant that universities provide almost identical offerings, teach in almost identical ways, and turn out graduates who are, in terms of workplace-preparedness, identical.

Though universities are at pains to emphasise the respects in which they differ from their competition, and there are some disciplines in which there are significant quality disparities between universities, there is very little evidence to suggest that the graduates of elite universities enjoy an employability or earnings premium over their contemporaries.

To the champions of choice and competition, this sounds like an anathema, but it has had an important and mostly unremarked-upon effect.

It has meant that the students of our oldest and most prestigious universities – who come overwhelmingly from the most privileged parts of the community – have not enjoyed substantial advantages over their less fortunate peers.

The University of Melbourne. (IMAGE: Geoff Penaluna, Flickr).
The University of Melbourne. (IMAGE: Geoff Penaluna, Flickr).

In the context of a marked inequality in primary and secondary education, the uniformity of Australia’s higher education sector has been an important equalising influence.

While the graduates of private high schools have always had an edge in landing the most sought-after tertiary spots, the homogeneity of our tertiary education system has meant this has been much less of a social problem than it might have been.

In the deregulation proposals lie the seeds of the dismantlement of this state of affairs.

For the first time, the most prestigious universities will be free to capitalise on their market power by charging their large domestic student base whatever they please.

And a quick look at the sums elite universities charge international and full-fee students indicates that they will charge an awful lot.

Deregulation will secure for elite universities the resources to transform themselves into what they’ve long wanted to be in substance, as well as in reputation: providers of a premium-quality experience.

The result will be that for the first time, a graduate of a sandstone university might actually be significantly better-prepared for the world of work than their peers.

With inequity in primary and secondary education already a matter of national concern, we should be wary of allowing the problem to spread to a new front. The Turnbull Government’s proposed reforms are a step in the wrong direction.

John Eldridge

John Eldridge is a PhD candidate and sessional lecturer at the University of Adelaide.

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