Do not block uni reform over a misplaced nostalgia

Written by the President and Vice-Chancellor at Monash, Professor Margaret Gardner, AO

Note: A version of this article was previously published in the Australian Financial Review, 28 October 2014

Nostalgia can be very expensive when it overtakes action on policy that will make a difference.

Palmer United Party leader Clive Palmer has continued to oppose the federal government's higher education reforms because he thinks the "free" higher education that was available in Australia between 1974 and 1989 is preferable.

But no government in the last 25 years has proposed that this method of funding will be reintroduced. There is no suggestion that this option will come into play if the current reform package is voted down in the Senate.

Let us be clear why vice-chancellors have supported the reform package with some amendments in particular, to reduce the "debt" impact on students and graduates, and to reduce the extent of the cuts to university funding so that any price increase to replace the cut will be lower.

The level of funding provided by government for domestic students is a large portion of Australian public university funding. The quality of Australian higher education and research is very dependent on it.

Again, Mr Palmer has said that the money for deregulated fees will go to salaries and employing more tenured academics. This is misleading and trivialises the serious issues at stake.

The number of full-time academics employed is affected by the level of university funding (and affects the quality of teaching when the numbers fall too low). Reduction in funding will also limit innovation in research and teaching.

Our students' education will be poorer if this occurs and our community, which benefits from research and more trained graduates, will also be poorer.

Universities fund many of their scholarships not from endowments provided by philanthropy but from the funding they receive each year.

Reforms need changes

When funding declines, the number of scholarships declines, and support for access to higher education for disadvantaged students falls as well.

The current debate has spent much time worrying about whether deregulation of fees will deter the disadvantaged from higher education or make it impossible for them.

For many disadvantaged students the major scholarship need is for living and accommodation costs, not for fees which will not be paid until they earn average wages and repay through the tax system.

If there is no way for universities to reverse the cuts and declines in government funding that they have experienced over the last 20 years, then there will not only be inevitable decline in quality but less funding available for scholarships. This will deter disadvantaged students. This is the untold story of the debates over these reforms and the unexplained further cost of stopping these reforms. When we look back on apparently golden ages of Australian higher education, let us all be clear that fewer disadvantaged students and a lower proportion of disadvantaged students got into higher education in those days, when it was free, than they do today.

The current government reforms need amendment to address elements that would impose hardship but they also represent the only proposal on the table that will allow universities to ensure Australian higher education can support high quality education and research that is accessible to a high proportion of the Australian population, irrespective of their economic or social circumstances.

Voting down those reforms will ensure that quality and access of higher education will be impaired, and no amount of casting back to earlier apparently more glorious times will change that outcome.