The short answer is because the existing funding model is not sustainable and a new approach is needed.
The kernels of the longer answer lie in reforms half-complete, great ideas improperly funded, cost confused with investment, and failed attempts to shoe-horn contemporary higher education trends into outdated policy structures.
And as we know, these days, budgets are to governments what sport is to the Australian psyche or harassed parents’ weekends – central.
Whichever government is in power, the need to cut, slash or slice spending is an overriding preoccupation. Higher education has not escaped the axe and is unlikely to in the future.
In 1980 I enrolled at university with about 330,000 others. If I’d enrolled in 2013 I would have joined almost one million other bright-eyed hopefuls. Back then about just 6 per cent of the population had a university degree. Today it’s more like 25 percent and growing.
We cannot escape the fact that this meritorious increase in access to university education has left both major parties struggling to defend the escalating cost it imposes on the taxpayer.
The independent review of higher education conducted by Denise Bradley in 2008 recommended, amongst many things, opening up universities to everyone with the desire and requisite ability. To Labor’s great credit, it acted on this but balked at further advice to increase per student ‘base’ funding for teaching and learning by 10 per cent. This was needed to address persistent, historical under-investment in universities.
Since then, further cuts to the sector and students, in the billions of dollars, have been meted out without the ability for universities to recoup these losses through other means.
If the Government’s package is opposed outright, the quality of the things that our great universities do so well – teaching and research – could be jeopardised. It is simply not possible to maintain the standards that students expect or the international reputation that Australia’s university system enjoys without full fee deregulation.
Fee deregulation is the logical next step in the evolution of higher education driven by the policies of those on both sides of politics who have viewed higher education as more of a drag on the budget than a wise investment in Australia’s human capital.
We can wish this wasn’t so, and indeed we do, but cuts that have occurred through successive government budgets and mid-year economic financial reviews bring into stark relief the ultimate futility in repeatedly calling for something we will never get.
A wicked problem indeed.
We have a choice. We can keep going as we are where demand for a quality university education continues to outstrip the financial capacity of the system to pay for it, or we do something different. In opting for change, Universities Australia, though, does not subscribe to an open slather, let the market rip approach.
Quality, integrity, affordability and accessibility will be the ultimate tests of success. For these to be achieved key amendments to the Bill are needed particularly in relation to the student loans scheme interest rate, the magnitude of the 20 per cent cut to per-student funding, staging implementation, and support for institutions that cater to regional and disadvantaged communities.
Senators should not be locked into the status quo. In embracing the rare and privileged opportunity they have to shape this key element of long-term structural reform, crossbenchers can create a higher education legacy of which they can be proud.
Belinda Robinson, Chief Executive, Universities Australia
This piece originally appeared in the Australian Financial Review.