Skip to content. | Skip to navigation

Personal tools
Log in
You are here: Home News Time to Break Down Some Barriers

Time to Break Down Some Barriers

COPHE has called for the Government to break down some of the barriers between what defines ‘public’ and ‘private’ students in higher education if it is serious about meeting the goals it has outlined in its discussion paper: Driving Innovation, Fairness and Excellence in Australian Higher Education - July 2016.

COPHE CEO Adrian McComb commended the vision within the Discussion Paper of a higher education sector that drives innovation, fairness and excellence; which provides individual choice, yet is affordable for both students and the Commonwealth.

Mr McComb said the first barrier was the definition of who is a ‘private’ student. As far back as the Review of Australian Higher Education (the Bradley Review) in 2008, it was noted that “The public-private divide is no longer a sensible distinction”. The key outcome of this review was the establishment of the single national regulator [TEQSA ] which assures quality for all higher education institutions. Therefore the public/private distinction is now even less “sensible” than in 2008.

Mr McComb said in COPHE’s response to the discussion paper that the most efficient way for the sector to become more innovative, was for more support for students in smaller, flexible institutions. These were already better placed to respond quickly to economic and digital disruption, compared to those under the current large, research intensive university model.

He said all graduates, whether from public or private institutions, make an equally valuable contribution to Australian society.

Mr McComb said private students were from all walks of life, of varying ages and backgrounds, from regional and city areas as well as international students. Although it is counter intuitive given students at private institutions receive no subsidies, 16% of students (2014 data) in private institutions were from low SES backgrounds whilst the figure for low SES is 17.5% in public universities.

An increasing number of students are choosing private higher education institutions, because of the more personalised attention, industry links, added flexibility and specialised course options. Some start in private pathways courses and move to public universities. As more people embrace lifelong learning, many may well study at quite different types of institutions at different stages in their lives.

In an environment of fiscal restraint, those involved in the discussion should also consider that the private higher education sector has been steadily growing without taxpayer support. Therefore attracting further private investment must be in the public interest.

“Over the past 15 years, the private higher education sector has grown to the stage where student enrolments are now the equivalent of three or four public universities,” he said. “This has been achieved with almost no public investment. Thus surely a key question is this: what public policy is needed to drive private investment further so that we see the enrolment equivalent of five or six public universities spread over a wide range of institutional types?”

In its response to the discussion paper, COPHE called for:

  • equitable treatment in Commonwealth support for all students
  • expanding the diversity of institutional types in Australian higher education
  • a single coherent loan scheme for all higher education students
  • the need to develop a funding model that is affordable for both students and the Commonwealth.

The COPHE submission stated that COPHE was not proposing institutional support, but rather that students were treated the same in public policy terms, irrespective of their choice of registered provider.  In addition to the inherent fairness of this proposal, COPHE argued that it would also tend to produce a healthy diversity in the higher education sector, one that was responsive to the ever changing needs of Australian society.

Mr McComb said equity in support for private Higher Education students was far from a new idea – in fact it was evident in the recommendations of the many reviews of higher education conducted over the past twenty years.

The recommendations of the West Review, 1998, called for a gradual move towards a ‘student-centred’ approach, including access to government grants and income-contingent loans for students at both public and private providers. “A student-centred approach has built-in equity,” Mr McComb said.

A major breakthrough came when the Higher Education Support Act 2003 extended Fee-HELP loans to students enrolling with approved higher education providers.  However the imposition of a loan fee, later increased from 20% to 25% by the Gillard government, further increased the inequity. This fee still remains.

Mr McComb said those who claimed that support for private higher education institutions was somehow risky, did not understand the significant differences between the higher education and the training sectors.

“Since FEE-HELP support for students in the private higher education sector was legislated in 2003, and subsequently rolled out to the majority of private institutions, there have not been any scandals nor any institutional failures displacing students,” Mr McComb said.

In 2014, the Review of the Demand Driven Funding System observed in the covering letter to the Minister that there were ”significant further benefits to be obtained by extension of the demand driven system into the sub-bachelor level, and to private universities and to non-university higher education providers”.

Mr McComb said students would also benefit from an expanded diversity of institutional types in Australian Higher Education. “The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education in the United States lists 33 types of degree granting institutions, but in Australia we only have one model of university. This model is research intensive, greatly limiting institutional diversity and flexibility,” he said.

In its submission, COPHE also proposes that a modest loan fee, consistently applied across all HELP loans, was the most equitable approach. “By extrapolating from budget figures, but without access to loan data we have calculated that a loan fee of 6% or 7% would, together with other measures, make the HELP loan scheme more sustainable,” Mr McComb said. Also as there are lifetime limits on FEE- HELP loans, for consistency these could also be applied to the HELP scheme, although such limits discouraged lifetime learning. For 2016, the FEE-HELP limit is $99,389 for most students.

The COPHE submission also points out that the idea that pathways courses could be funded at a lower rate because they do no research, is flawed as it ignores higher teaching costs from smaller classes for less well prepared students.  Similarly, in the case of private institutions, capping fees at a lower level misses the fact that there is no public contribution to the cost of infrastructure - and none has been sought. Therefore in the absence of a contribution to infrastructure, the courses could not be delivered in most cases at the lower capped prices on offer.

Another related furphy is that private institutions do not undertake research. Some COPHE members already offer accredited research degree training programs and all teaching staff who must have qualifications at the AQF pus 1 level expect support for their research. 

Mr McComb said COPHE agreed as per page 2 in the Government’s discussion paper, that “a strong higher education system benefits everyone”, however, he added that this will only be the case, “when the system meets the needs of all its students, including those in the private sector.”

To download a copy of COPHE’s full submission visit the COPHE website

 contact: Adrian McComb, Chief Executive Officer, Phone (02) 8021 0841. 

News image