Universities Australia is the peak national body representing Australia’s 39 comprehensive universities. Our core business is to ensure that the policy, regulatory and fiscal environment within which our universities operate, supports a strong, internationally competitive, high-performance higher education system: one that continues to be the preferred choice for both domestic and international students.
Against a backdrop of ongoing public budget restraint, intensifying global competition, technological evolution and increasing student expectations and demand, it is incumbent on all of us to work in the best interests of our students, employers and the country in shaping and positioning our university sector for meeting, not just today’s challenges, but tomorrow’s as well.
If we fail in that task, we risk paying the price, over time, of an erosion in the quality of teaching, of research and, inevitably of our graduates. This won’t happen immediately but the system simply cannot sustain ongoing cuts to revenue without there being a consequential impact on performance.
We don’t believe that it is possible to maintain the standards that students expect or the international reputation that the sector enjoys without a new approach that has at its core long-term financial sustainability and less university exposure to policy instability, political whim and idiosyncratic approaches to funding that are impossible to predict from one six month period to the next.
Can I quote from the 2008 Bradley Review into higher education, commissioned by the previous Government:
“Without significant reform and additional investment, current performance is unlikely to be sustained and, as many other countries have already begun to invest to improve their relative performance, our position internationally is likely to decline …” (p. 9)
The report went on to say:
“This would have serious and irreversible social, economic and cultural consequences for the nation“. (p. 9)
To its credit, most of the recommendations of the Bradley Review were implemented by the previous Government, including the introduction of the demand driven system. But the key recommendation for a 10 per cent increase in per student funding to address persistent, historical underinvestment in universities, was not.
We cannot escape the fact that the meritorious increase in access to university education has left both major parties, when in Government, struggling to defend the cost that the system imposes on the taxpayer.
Government funding per student has dropped by 14.4 per cent in real terms since 1994. Despite some correcting up-ticks through this period, particularly from 2003, these have been insufficient to offset the long-term decline. With both major parties announcing further reductions when in Government, it has become very clear to the sector that a new approach is needed to provide bottom-line insurance against frequently changing policy and budget priorities and to assure the quality and performance expectations of our students.
The sector has looked carefully and closely at the Government’s proposals and come to the consensus view that fee deregulation, the next logical step in higher education policy, should not be opposed. But we do believe that substantial improvements to the package are required.
In applying the principles that sit at the heart of good higher education policy – affordability, accessibility, equity and sustainability – we would like to see the Senate amend the package in three key ways:
- By providing relief to the proposed 20 per cent cut to Commonwealth supported places:
- By reducing the regressive impact of the proposed changes to the student loans scheme; and
- By providing a structural adjustment package to assist institutions make the transition to the new market-based environment.
Before closing, let me address concerns raised by students, their families and others about affordability. The amendments to the legislation proposed by Universities Australia are intended to ensure that no one is deterred from enrolling at university because of price. We also believe that competitive pressures and the desire not to be priced out of the market will serve to put downward pressure on university fees.
Nevertheless, for additional assurance, there may also be merit in amending the legislation to provide for the establishment of an independent expert advisory panel to monitor the implementation of the reforms and provide advice to the Government on any policy adjustments that may be required. Such a panel could also be charged with the responsibility for more formally reviewing the system at the appropriate time and would be consistent with the recommendation of the Office of Best Practice Regulation (published on 1 October 2014) that a post implementation review be completed within five years of commencement.
In closing, Senators, we have a choice. We can keep going as we are, where the demand for a quality university education continues to outstrip the capacity of the system to pay for it, or we do something different.
The Senate is in a unique and privileged position to shape this key element of long-term structural reform and create a legacy. We encourage them to do so by amending the Bill as we suggest and passing it.