In a speech to university leaders in Canberra this week the Commonwealth education minister, Christopher Pyne addressed the government’s lack of an electoral mandate to remove limits on fees.
The Senate showed its disposition in December when it blocked the Coalition’s bill to deregulate fees, cut course subsidies by 20% on average, and extend federal government funding to sub-bachelor programs and private colleges.
He sought to sheet home the blame to the opposition, citing Labor’s decision to abandon its support for Julia Gillard’s previously announced savings in the higher education sector including a proposed efficiency dividend. Those savings were originally intended to fund the Gonski school reforms.
Pyne said the Coalition, in framing its first budget, decided “it was better in every way to have a package of reforms” than to simply make cuts.
Labor has repeatedly accused the Coalition of breaking its promises, pointing to the pre-election pledge in the Real Solutions ‘brochure’ that it would “ensure the continuation of the current arrangements of university funding” and Tony Abbott’s comments in 2013 that universities should expect “a period of relative policy stability”.
The chief executive of Universities Australia, Belinda Robinson, still held out hope of a compromise but said passage of the bill was “looking unlikely”.
In a speech to the National Press Club earlier on Wednesday, Robinson said a defeat would provide an opportunity to “regroup, re-think and reflect on higher education policy” but the sector could not afford to abandon the push for reform.
She spoke of the need “to engage more broadly with the general public and bring them into our confidence” while debating the relative benefits of policy options.(Yeah, there has been a lot of talk about talk lately. Is it genuine talk though or just better presented spin?)
The opposition leader, Bill Shorten sought to lay out some markers on Labor’s likely alternative policy in a speech at Monash University on Wednesday.
Shorten outlined some general principles, including the need for the next wave of university reforms to “focus on guaranteeing quality as well as equity”.
Pyne argued that Labor was planning to restrict access by reintroducing “socially regressive” caps on the number of student places that were funded each year.
But Shorten said Labor wanted to “grow participation rates for students from disadvantaged backgrounds without undermining the quality and value of a degree”.
He noted that completion rates had been falling in recent years, while there had been an increase in offers to university applicants with lower tertiary admission ranks.
“We will always support growth in the system – and reports of freezing enrolments at 2015 levels are plainly untrue,” Shorten said.
“This is not a matter of forcing down enrolment to improve quality – it is about lifting standards to catch up to the new levels of access and equity.”
An alternative policy
Labor Higher education spokesperson, Kim Carr said that Labor will focus on addressing the growing number of university students enrolled with low tertiary entrance scores and the oversupply of graduates in fields such as law if it wins the next federal election. In his speech Senator Carr will flag the reintroduction of contract agreements – known as compacts – between the federal government and universities.
As well as reducing the number of students dropping out, these agreements would seek to align university funding with regional and national priorities such as boosting the number of graduates in science, maths, engineering and technology (STEM) fields.
"I'm concerned about the evidence of skill shortages in some labour markets and oversupply of graduates in others," Senator Carr will say.
"There is an oversupply of law graduates, for example, and a chronic undersupply of graduates in STEM disciplines.
"And some nursing students, like some education students are admitted on ATARS lower than 50 … [There] is increasing concern about completion rates and the achievement of satisfactory academic standards, especially among students who have entered university with low ATARS."Labor has developed detailed higher education policies that have been costed by the Parliamentary Budget Office.
"Labor understands that voters expect governments to fund universities properly … but in return for public investment, Labor expects universities to work with the Commonwealth to help address national and regional priorities in education and the labour market."Expect universities to complain about this policy as it effects their ability to pump out (if they’re lucky) graduates whether there is a job for them or not.