If the Turnbull Government is to be believed, the starting point for debate on the future of university funding is the need to achieve savings set out in the 2016 Budget papers. But why should Australians, and universities, accept this?

It is true that spending on higher education has expanded rapidly since the introduction of the demand driven system. But that does not necessarily mean that it is fiscally unsustainable.

It is equally true that failing to expand access to higher education would be a fraught economic and fiscal strategy. As Peter Coaldrake and Lawrence Stedman note (HES, 13 July 2016), since the global financial crisis three in every four new jobs have gone to jobseekers with a degree. In Australia the unemployment rate for those with a bachelor’s degree is substantially less than the rate for those without.

This is a profound economic and social change – and one that Australia is well-placed to meet, thanks to Labor’s reforms to higher education under the Rudd and Gillard governments.

But reform cannot mean either spending more money without regard for outcomes, or, as the government seems to be indicating, finding ways to make students, degree holders and their families pay more.

This is the challenge that the Government must face in the next term of Parliament. Most people will need some form of higher education, so the future of the economy will depend on a vibrant university sector. But a degree is no longer a guarantee of a job. Graduate unemployment rates are the highest on record – even higher than during the 1990s recession.

The Government wants graduates and students to pay more, but it has failed to obtain a mandate for this. That’s partly because they have also failed to advance any rationale beyond Liberal ideology. Students and their families know that both the individual and society benefit from education, and they are unwilling to take on an unfair share of the burden.

How can it be a viable strategy to ask Australian students and their families to pay more through deregulation, or radical HECS changes, or 20-30 per cent increases in fees, while spruiking a $50 billion corporate tax cut?

Such a political and social strategy will quite rightly foster the sense that the Government is all for cutting taxes for the big end of town while making middle and working class Australians pay much, much more for that which is essential for entry into the 21st century workforce – a degree.

Given the complexion of the new Parliament, and the mood of the country, only one viable policy strategy can be adopted.

The government must rip up its Orwellian options paper, Driving Innovation, Fairness and Excellence in Australian Higher Education. It must abandon its ideological frolic with deregulation, privatisation and the Americanisation of higher education.

The paper does not retreat from the Government’s fiscal goals – the 20 per cent cut to university funding -- or its ideological agenda of fee deregulation or the privatisation of higher education.

The only viable political strategy is to change the basis of the conversation on higher education reform. The nation cannot afford to make the mistake of viewing higher education as a cost, when it is an opportunity to secure our future – especially when all our competitors are investing in their own.

Fiscal discipline is important, of course, but it is a false economy to defund the sector that will underwrite our future prosperity. Relatively modest savings will be paid for heavily down the track with reduced capabilities, incomes and standards of living.

Instead of rattling the can, we must start by asking what kind of higher education sector our country needs, then addressing the questions that arise.

How do we organise the sector to best respond to the winds buffeting the Australian economy? How do we ensure that students get a degree that not only helps them in the workforce, but sets them up with the skills – critical thinking, creativity, analysis – needed to be active citizens?

What are the most effective pedagogical models? And how do we ensure that the demand-driven system effectively responds to the labour market needs of the regions in which our universities operate?

This cannot be achieved by continuing the false crusade of the disastrous 2014 Budget, nor can it be achieved by continuing the ideological agenda of opening up public subsidies to private colleges. The disaster caused by the Government’s mismanagement of VET FEE-HELP, and the parlous state of TAFE, shows where that agenda will lead.

The Government would be well advised to bin its “policy paper” and do what Labor and Senator Xenophon have called for from the start – engage in a real consultation with the sector on what is the best way forward.

Labor is ready to be a part of that conversation. Our election policy platform, with a commitment to a genuine Green/White paper process, a higher education commission and a student funding guarantee, could serve as the basis for bipartisanship in the Senate.

But there are limits to Labor’s co-operation. There is no basis for reform in reverting to fee deregulation and $100,000 degrees, to continued assaults on equity and research funding, and to undermining the public nature of our university system.

The Government has no mandate to continue its war on Australia’s great public university system. Now is the time to end the war.


This Opinion Piece was first published in The Australian on Wednesday, 20 July 2016.


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