COVER STORY: Universities: battleground for next election?
by News Weekly
News Weekly, July 26, 2003
It has been a long time since higher education was a central election issue in the federal political arena, but all indications are that the next poll will be different.
The Coalition and Labor are vigorously pursuing starkly different models for Australia's higher education sector and are preparing the electoral battleground to convince Australian parents and their offspring, many of whom will be first-time or new voters, that their respective platform promises the best way forward for the future of the nation.
Education Minister Dr Brendan Nelson has staked his own political future on his new deal for the universities, which includes capacity to charge higher fees, while Labor is staking its short-term future on making university education accessible to the widest possible number of students.
The Nelson Plan actually brings more Commonwealth funding to the table - $1.5 billion in the first four years and $10 billion over the coming decade. But it will also put an end to the equal treatment of all universities - creating a two or even three-tiered system of "Ivy League" unis in Australia, up-and-comers, and niche universities.
Even more controversially the plan also allows Australia's universities to "become internationally competitive" by permitting them the flexibility to increase the HECS charge (currently about a quarter of the cost of a student's education) in the fields of law, medicine, veterinary science, engineering, arts, commerce and economics.
Unfortunately for Labor, HECS is a Labor tax, and in effect, the Coalition is simply extending it.
Labor now says the higher fees and ability of students to "buy" themselves a degree will both dissuade lower income students from pursuing higher education, and be prohibitive for those who do.
In attempting to cruel the Government's proposals to allow universities to charge up to 30 per cent more for courses, Labor's Simon Crean is already rehearsing the lines he will use including:
"Education is going to be priced out of the reach of our young people."
"We shouldn't just look at these things as costs, we've got to see them as investments by the nation."
"So while there is some private benefit in education, overwhelmingly it is for the public good."
They are effective lines which will resonate in the community which believes education is, or should be, an acceptable vehicle for their hard-earned taxes to go toward.
So far Labor has announced that it would lower fees for maths and science students, 20,000 more TAFE positions, 3,125 more places for nurses. More "practical" investment announcements are expected over the coming months from the ALP.
But while the politics of the current education debate is going to generate ongoing heat it needs to be recalled that there has been a fundamental shift in higher education funding in Australia (and incidentally for many other government programs as well) toward the principle of user-pays.
In fact, the past couple of decades have been marked by a remarkable trifecta in higher education in Australia - more university places than ever before, a massive increase in the number of fee-paying foreign students, and students paying for their own education through HECS.
But the dividend from the trifecta has been even more remarkable - universities are still under-funded, over-crowded and fail to pay their academics salaries commensurate with their extensive studies and experience. Most significantly, however, is the fact that despite the extra revenue, taxes have not fallen, but continue to be soaked up.
In short governments, both Labor and Liberal, have driven the user pays policy through higher education sector - making students pay for part of their education and making universities pull in "export" income from overseas students, but the cost to taxpayer continues to rise.
The majority of overseas students come from Asia - specifically: Singapore (18,000), Malaysia (16,000), Hong Kong (15,000), Indonesia (10,000), China (8,000) and India (5,000).
All up, the overseas students member an extraordinary 112,000 bringing in $4.2 billion in external income.
The Coalition may, in fact, be correct in arguing that it is trying to create a better, fairer and better-funded system, but it also requires a sense of history to see that ultimately students are going to be bailed up to pay for their own education, while the Australian taxpayer forks out just the same as ever.