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Govt must continue fight for reform

As published in The Campus Review May 20, 2015

Retention by the Government of the Reform Legislation from the 2014 budget is very important for the sector and must be brought forward again, writes Adrian McComb.

For private higher education the government’s proposed reforms promise equitable treatment and wider options for students who take the high quality courses on offer that are not delivered by public universities.

The necessary legislation was defeated in the end, primarily because the cross bench Senators were wary of what public universities would charge in a deregulated market.

Proposals were emerging that would have put the brakes on excesses however they arose pretty late in the debate. They need to be reworked again. Post-graduate and international student fees already operate in markets and a market for undergraduates can also work.

The very effective scare campaign about $100,000 degrees mounted by the unions and the Greens – picked up with alacrity by Labor – also skewed the debate. Dodgy numbers became the order of the day.

As it now stands, with undergraduate students enrolled with private providers incurring a 25 per cent loading on their tuition fees as a FEE HELP administration fee and them being denied Commonwealth Supported Places, these students incur debt that is double or more than that of their public university student counterparts.

The reforms are the only workable solution on offer as expanding enrolments pushes the cost beyond the capacity of taxpayers to foot the bill. The reforms  work because of our world beating income contingent loan scheme, commonly called HECS but not widely understood or appreciated by the general public. The HECS model is a unique Australian invention.

The reforms must pass the Senate if we are to have a system that gives every Australian student the opportunity to earn a degree and gives universities flexibility in finding the additional resources that can ensure quality outcomes.

The current system locks in student support levels established decades ago which are overdue for review. Furthermore, the ability of public universities to cross-subsidize research activity from income drawn from student fees, underpinned by HECS debt, has to be challenged.

One budget item – the project activity of the Office of Learning and Teaching (OLT) has been very important to our colleagues as they have engaged with it, building their confidence and capacity to demonstrate good outcomes for students. In whatever structure is finalised, investment in OLT will produce a return for the entire sector. Other 2015 Budget measures apply to programs where only public universities are eligible.

In the Labor response to the budget by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, we were bamboozled by the announcement that they would forgive HECS for 100,000 HECS places for STEM courses at a cost of $45million when a quick back of the envelope calculation put it over $2 billion.

Reference was also made to the Labor National Platform Consultation Draft which claims to provide a fairer and more equitable system, one where investment in higher education is critical yet the same document ignores private sector investment and explicitly denies support to students enrolled in the private sector.

Labor observes there are clear differences between public universities and other higher education providers. This misses the point that HECS and Commonwealth Supported Places are not about institutional funding but equitable support of students to achieve outcomes that bring a balance of public and private benefit.
The same return to the individual and our society applies irrespective of where a student undertook a course, of which all are subject to the oversight of TEQSA, the national higher education regulator.

A further debate that is needed is about what constitutes public and private. What we currently have in the public sector is an artefact of the creation of the “unified system” by Labor Education Minister John Dawkins. Many parts of our public universities were institutions like Catholic and other teachers colleges or allied health institutions that were clearly private. Many private providers today are institutions that were in existence but not included in the Dawkins reforms.

The legal basis for the power given to TEQSA to enable it to regulate universities is that universities are trading corporations within the powers the Commonwealth has to regulate corporations. Non-university institutions are also corporations. All courses offered in higher education have to meet the same standards.

Private providers deliver courses that underpin the important international student stream in universities and universities offer courses in partnership or joint venture with private providers. Discrimination in the treatment of student support on the basis of the public/private perceptions that owe their definition to something that cannot be rationally explained is outrageous.

We note that the Go8 in their paper Private Higher Education Providers in Australia – released in July last year – pointed out that in Australia today the distinction between public and private institutions is not easy to define – and some experts even say “obsolete”.

Would discrimination on the basis of the private/public divide stand up in say health? Of course not.

We must continue to press for reform.

Adrian McComb is the CEO of the Council of Private Higher Education


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