I spent a good part of this month in Australia, talking to people about the radical program introduced in the May budget. The basics of the system are as follows:
- A recently-introduced plan of uncapped places, with the government funding as many students as institutions wish to admit, was maintained; however, the average amount of the per-student subsidy will drop by 20%;
- Tuition fees will be fully de-regulated. Institutions will be able to charge what they like, subject to the stipulation that fees for domestic students cannot rise above fees for international ones;
- Institutions will be required to sequester 20% of all tuition revenue over and above what is required to make good on the cut in government subsidies for students’ scholarships (in conception, this is identical to the 30% tuition set-aside in Ontario);
- The repayment threshold for student loans will be lowered slightly, and students will for the first time be required to pay real interest on the loan (currently, they pay the loan back in constant inflation-adjusted dollars).
The package is seen as favouring the more prestigious and research-intensive universities (known as the Group of 8 – their version of our U-15), since – it is believed – they will be able to charge the higher fees. And they have made their intentions plain as to where they will go under the new regime: significantly higher fees, reduced undergraduate intake, and ploughing all the extra money back into research, research, and more research.
(Australian universities conceive of research, rankings, and international students as a kind of iron triangle – they need international students for money, good rankings to attract international students, and research to drive their rankings results. It’s patently not true – the most international-student-
As might be expected, the sector isn’t unanimously in support. Students don’t want the higher debt and the academics union are backing them (though, if universities do get more money, they’ll surely be arguing for much of it to be directed their way through higher salaries). The most on-the-fence group are the lower-prestige universities, who aren’t convinced the market will let them charge higher fees, and hence see the whole exercise as one of increasing system stratification.
The budget is at risk of not passing; control of the Senate rests with a number of small parties – some of whom are definitely in wing-nut territory (google the terms: “Motoring Enthusiast Party”, “preference whisperers”, and “Jacquie Lambie radio interview” to get a sense of the nuttiness), and the budget contains a number of other highly-controversial reforms, such as introducing fees for doctors visit. Some think that there’s a deal to be had – acceptance of the fees in return for ditching the student loan interest rate proposals – but this deal is far from certain.
Complicating matters further is that the G-8 seem determined to go ahead and announce their 2016 fee structure next month, even before the package’s fate in the Senate is assured. This, they claim, is necessary for guidance counsellors and high school juniors to make decisions. But it’s a hell of a risk – one which raises the stakes for the government.
And what will happen if it passes? Tune in tomorrow.