Higher education has been a hot topic of discussion for the last few years, with the proposal for complete fee deregulation in the 2014/2015 Budget, significant cuts from both Liberal and Labor governments, and even plans to recoup HECS debt from people after their death. Despite a coalition of students, unionists and progressives successfully defeating the Liberal Party platform of complete fee deregulation three times, the threat remains.
It is, however, in a somewhat dormant form. Prior to the election, Turnbull released a strategic paper which postponed any decisions on higher education until 2018 – effectively putting a pin in this policy. The document argues in support of fee deregulation, but was presumably written at a time when Turnbull (whether arrogant, optimistic or naïve) thought the Coalition would control the House and the Senate. Opponents to fee deregulation might be able to sleep easier looking at the small party dominated Senate, but we still don’t know where many representatives sit on the issue of fee deregulation. Nor do we know their position on a lot of the other changes proposed by the Coalition, which haven’t had the same level of public attention or scrutiny, but would still have a negative impact on students and Universities.
To bring you up to speed, here are three of the most pressing higher education issues facing Universities and students today.
PARTIAL FEE DEREGULATION
The thought bubble of partial fee deregulation floating about parliament currently was borne out of the unpopular 2014 proposal to fully deregulate University fees. In its current version, it instead proposes to allow deregulation for ‘flagship courses’, which would apply to “identified high-quality, innovative courses [to provide] additional flexibility to innovate and differentiate themselves.” (‘Innovate’ twice in one sentence – this must be getting serious.) The tl;dr is that Universities would be able to charge whatever they wanted for courses like Law, Medicine, Dentistry, Engineering, and so on. Given these courses were the ones that were originally estimated to cost in excess of $100,000 under the initial fee deregulation proposal, the potential harms of this stratification of courses seem significant.
Furthermore, with the increasing push to more simplified undergraduate degrees (like the ‘Melbourne Model’ we have at UWA) that ‘encourage’ students to continue studying post-grad, this change would likely affect a large proportion of students, especially as the government suggested there up to 20% of enrollments might be in these flagship courses. The Group of Eight, Australian Technology Network, and Regional Universities Network have all spoken out against partial deregulation, which they fear will create a ‘two tiered system’ that locks out disadvantaged students.
I am pleased to say that at the time of writing, UWA is one of the many Australian Universities to come out against the proposal, with only 4 Universities making a public statement in favour of deregulation.
The average University student wouldn’t be able to tell you what HEPP is, and has probably never heard of it before – but to the students it helps, it means everything. The Higher Education Participation Program is an equity program which the Coalition plans to cut 40% of funding to in the next 4 years. The program aims to increase the proportion of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and with the current percentage at 18.1% they are close to meeting the initial target of 20%. At UWA, HEPP provides funding for the important Aspire program that works with high school students in regional and rural Western Australia to encourage them to come to University and provides them with support when they arrive. With the University already trying to tighten their pockets, it’s foreseeable that programs like Aspire won’t be able to run to their full capacity without the HEPP funding – further disadvantaging students who are already disadvantaged.
In yet another attempt to balance the budget on the back of students, the Coalition has proposed following the recommendation to lower the HECS repayment threshold by over a fifth – from $54,126 to $42,000. The move is aimed at recouping more debt from graduates, but would target those who are earning below minimum wage and have probably not actually received a financial benefit from their degree. With wage growth at its lowest point since the early 1990s, this move will hit women, part-time workers, new graduates, and those struggling to find gainful employment the hardest. If there is a problem with graduates being unable to pay off their university debt, then the question should be why they are unable to find well-paying skilled work and why the debt they have is unmanageable. The answer isn’t to dramatically increase fees and make young people repay more, earlier.
Words by Emma Boogaerdt (UWA Student Guild 2016 Education Council President)
The National Union of Students are holding peaceful student protests, known as the ‘National Day of Action’, in every capital city next Wednesday 24th August. Join the UWA contingent here.