Average young Aussies will suffer if Abbott remains on reckless trajectory towards privatisation

The Abbott Government is set to shift a larger burden of the cost of higher education on to the shoulders of students and their families.

If, as seems likely, the Government accepts the recommendations of the Kemp-Norton review, the inevitable outcome is clear privatisation of higher education by stealth.

As the review's authors say: "If savings are to be made ... the most equitable and efficient way is to reduce Commonwealth Grant Scheme payments per student, with a corresponding increase in the student contribution amount supported by the HELP loan scheme." This is a stark demonstration of this government's cockeyed priorities: pensioners, students and sick Australians must pay more while higher education is set up for creeping privatisation.

The consequences, under the current government, will be a spiral in the cost of university studies for young people. In Britain, the impact of tuition fee deregulation was stark young people turned their backs on higher education.

Australia cannot afford to make the same mistake. Our future depends on becoming a clever country: advanced manufacturing, smart services. We need university graduates to fuel the economy. Young, and older, people need skills and knowledge to participate in this future.

Reduced government funding per student means this: more prestigious universities will raise their fees so that only the well-off can afford them, while other institutions will find that, realistically, they don't have that option. Instead, they will be forced to offer cut-price degrees.

The context for this argument is this: the Government wants to reduce funding per student.

Clearly, this is a breach of an election promise. No amount of obfuscation will provide an alibi.

You can't reduce costs per student without damaging quality.

Most families, hit by mounting financial pressures, won't be able to choose a Rolls Royce higher education, but will opt for something affordable and, inevitably, second rate. So much for equality of opportunity.

Our HECS-HELP system has been an ingenious means of introducing cost sharing into higher education without turning young people away. But there is a limit. A debt of $25,000 is one thing: under a deregulated system, a debt of $150,000 or more is another. Students and their families know this. An average graduate in education, nursing or IT will take eight to 10 years to repay their debt. A more sizeable debt, under the current repayment regime, looms large well into the future a lifetime of repayments.

The HECS mechanism is no magic pudding, and to profess to believe in magic in this regard is facile and deliberately naive. In establishing HECS, we didn't create a passport for university fees that spiral to giddy heights. To attract students, regional universities and metropolitan institutions that serve working-class areas and ordinary families will undercut the sandstone providers and offer cheaper degrees, but, in the competitive job market, these qualifications will open fewer doors. We will sell the vast majority of our young people short.

The Government's eye is fixed solely on doing things on the cheap. It has no grand plan, no long-term strategy to build the university system we need for our future. In seizing on fee deregulation, its focus is piecemeal. It is bending to the demands of self-interest on the part of those who stand to benefit most in a deregulated environment.

Most universities, and the majority of students, are not so happily placed. Into the mix, Tony Abbott and Education Minister Christopher Pyne have thrown the idea of opening up the market for government per-student funding more widely to a potentially unlimited number of private providers. Once again, short-sightedness rules.

The regulatory and quality-assurance regime in higher education, TEQSA, is currently undergoing a major shake-up of the government's own instigation: its future shape and modus operandi are unclear.

Surely now is not the time to take this step. Our experience in international education shows what can happen when responsible oversight of opportunistic market players lags and falters.

But it is average young Australians, who stand to lose out if the government's reckless trajectory is followed. Our nation's future is at stake.

This was originally published in The Australian on 30 April 2014.

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