Labor, Greens blind to inequities of current higher education system

by Andrew Norton

Published by The Australian, Wednesday 22 October

Debate about Christopher Pyne’s higher education reform package has led Labor and the Greens into a strange political position. In apparently opposing all the reform bill’s major measures, Labor’s position is that it both prohibits and requires full-fee undergraduate places, depending on where a student studies. The Greens’ position is that higher education should be free, except it seems for students outside the public universities who should pay uncapped fees.

These contradictions arise because they defend the current higher education system, despite its anomalies and injustices.

Which higher education providers are eligible for teaching subsidies depends on their past rather than any principle or clear policy objective. Essentially, institutions that were on the public funding list in the late 1980s are still there today. Institutions that were not listed in the late 1980s still have no or only restricted eligibility for public funding. These decisions made long ago are the main reason why some students receive tuition subsidies of more than $21,000 a year and a soft student loan scheme, and others receive no subsidies and pay a 25 per cent loan fee on their student debt.

The current funding divide cannot be characterised as a neat matter of public versus private. Australian Catholic University is technically private but on the public funding list, while public TAFE colleges offering degrees are not.

It is not a matter of one group of higher education providers offering guarantees of quality while others do not. All higher education providers operate under the same accreditation and standards system, which takes account of history only when it is relevant. For example, newer higher education providers have less of a track record and therefore warrant more scrutiny.

Nor is it a matter of one set of institutions meeting equity needs and the other not — 14 per cent of undergraduates who pay full fees come from low socio-economic backgrounds, compared with 17 per cent of students enrolled in commonwealth supported places. The vast majority of full-fee undergraduate places are outside the public universities.

Equity is now one reason why the demand-driven system should be extended. Unfortunately, poor students are over-represented among people entering higher education on low ATARs. Completions data shows that low ATAR students who start in a bachelor degree have high attrition rates.

The demand-driven system review, which I conducted with David Kemp, concluded that low ATAR students did better academically if they began their higher education in a pathway college diploma program. The current system keeps diplomas and pathway colleges outside the demand driven system. The Pyne reforms would solve this problem.

In recent Senate hearings, Labor’s higher education spokesman Kim Carr acknowledged the pathways issue, noting that in the 2013 election campaign Labor had proposed university colleges to meet this need. But he also said that Labor opposed Pyne’s extension of the demand-driven funding because it involved budget cuts. The Pyne budget proposal spread roughly the same total spending as now over more students. This is fairer than the current system, which treats some students generously and others stingily for no principled reason. It is surprising that left-wing parties, normally alert to inequities, have come out in favour of an unjustifiable status quo.