University vice-chancellors must step up on higher education reform

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Vice-chancellors need to lift the debate about higher education reforms.It’s time for Australia’s university vice-chancellors to get down and dirty on higher education reform.

In last year’s budget, the Abbott government announced the most significant changes to Australia’s higher education system in 25 years – including a full deregulation of fees. Eight months later, university leaders are in furious agreement that reform is essential to stop the sector falling into decline.

Yet the government’s reform package remains stalled in the Senate following a narrow defeat last year. And the general public remains hostile. In the six months following the budget, support for fee deregulation rose a mere five points, from 17 per cent to 22 per cent, according to Essential Media polling.

This should have been a golden period of debate about Australia’s universities. Instead, we have had a national conversation heavy on rhetoric and light on facts. Future students and their parents – that is, the people who will be personally affected by higher fees – have largely been excluded from the conversation.

That’s why vice-chancellors, some of the smartest people in the country, should step in and break the impasse. It’s time for them to end the speculation and lift the standard of debate. It’s not enough to lobby politicians behind the scenes. With notable exceptions, too many vice-chancellors have relied on the government, and peak body Universities Australia, to sell the need for reform.

Labor and the Greens have made merry with predictions of $100,000 degrees proliferating if universities are allowed to set their own fees. Poor students, they say, will be scared off university. But past fee increases have not deterred poor students from going to university. And graduates won’t have to pay back a cent until they are earning a decent wage.

Meanwhile, the government claims it would continue to pay around 50 per cent of the cost of a degree. Competition, we are told, will keep fees low. Both statements are assertions, not evidence. We won’t know for sure until universities announce what they will charge under a deregulated system.

That’s where the vice-chancellors come in.

Each vice chancellor should outline what students would be expected to pay if the government’s reforms become law.

This would lead to a more informed debate about whether the potential fee increases are excessive or reasonable. It would also end uncertainty for students enrolling in university this year, and face surprise fee hikes in the later years of their degree.

Two universities have released fee estimates for 2016, the year deregulation would kick in. The University of Western Australia says its students would pay a flat $16,000 a year, meaning a $48,000 bill for a three-year degree The Queensland University of Technology says its most­ ­expensive course, a double ­degree in business and law, would cost $78,500 – a $17,300 increase on current levels.

Other universities have done similar modelling but refuse to release it. Yet they also insist any fee rises will be limited and responsible. To convince the public and the Senate crossbench of this they should do what they would demand of their own students: back up their claims with evidence. Facts, after all, are sacred; assertions are cheap.

Secondly, vice-chancellors should explain, in clear and practical terms, how future students would benefit from fee deregulation.

The case for deregulation has mostly been made at a macro level – the need to protect universities from government cuts by finding a more secure funding stream. It’s an important argument, but not one that has resonated with the general public.

When pressed on how they would spend the extra money, vice-chancellors speak of smaller and more personalised tutorials, investments in the latest technology and new scholarships for disadvantaged students.

But these arguments have not been made loudly or persuasively enough to cut through the noise about fee hikes. More detail is needed. A better story needs to be told.

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