Group of Eight splits on student debt

Hoj’s “double whammy” warning whacks Pyne’s plan

Putting it in writing

Good for University of Sydney Dean of Arts Duncan Ivison. Professor Ivison points his Twitter followers to a New York Times opinion piece by Chinese writer in residence at Sydney, Murong Xuecun, who demands reform at home. The university has a very large China studies centre and hosts a Confucius Institute and it never hurts to demonstrate a no ifs no buts commitment to academic independence.

Not so great eight

On budget night the Group of Eight nailed its colours to the minister’s mast endorsing the Pyne package. “Australia’s pioneering income-contingent student loan system will continue to ensure that no capable student is priced out of higher education. The progressive repayment system means that those who benefit most pay most,” chair Ian Young from ANU said.

A fortnight on some VCs are holding the line, variously sticking to their first comments or reiterating support. Fred Hilmer was urging deregulation on the basis of the Commission of Audit report the week before the budget. Ed Byrne from Monash spoke out soon after it in favour of income contingent loans and scholarships. On Thursday Paul Johnson from the University of Western Australia endorsed deregulation, “greater autonomy will help us better compete in a globally competitive market.” But not everybody is standing firm firm for a higher interest rate increasing student debt. Glyn Davis from the University of Melbourne criticised the increased HELP interest rate in a Sky News interview with the (very) well briefed Helen Dalley. Warren Bebbington (Adelaide) distanced himself from deregulation because of the fees; “which might be worse than in the US.” And Sydney’s Michael Spence is “concerned about the impact of any changes on low-income and, indeed, middle-income families”. On Friday night on PM University of Queensland VC Peter Hoj added his concern about interest rates, which makes it four in favour of standing firm neath Mr Pyne’s standard and four for striking, or least lowering the fee increase colours to half mast.

One of the Group of Eight’s great strengths (just after its armour plated collective ego) is that it stands together. Not now it doesn’t.

Hoj’s “double whammy” warning

University of Queensland Vice Chancellor Peter Hoj expanded his concerns on Sunday night saying, he believes “many elements of the proposed package are overdue and make a lot of sense,” but he has an “overarching concern”. That is “the double whammy” of a cut in funding for Commonwealth Supported Places and more expensive student loan repayments. “In toto, this would increase the repayment burden for students dramatically and almost certainly extend the payback time considerably for most.” Professor Hoj is also alarmed with the cuts to Commonwealth support for students in science, including engineering and agriculture, which he says “could well amount to 30 per cent.” “This will not only deter students from studying science and engineering, it will also negatively affect a section of  Australia’s workforce which would appear essential to transform our economy to one based on knowledge and characterised by resilience.”

Maybe the Group of Four will get some of what it wants

Mr Pyne has always said deals will need doing for his package to pass the Senate and on the weekend he started suggesting what might be in play – the size of the HELP interest rate and the threshold for debt repayment.  And Labor leader in the Senate Penny Wong is listening. On ABC TV Insiders yesterday she said the party opposed the Pyne plan to take university education back to the pre-Whitlam era and she wasn’t going to respond to “Christopher Pyne’s latest thought bubble.” But she added Labor would wait and see what the legislation looked like. The government expects to have to do multiple deals to secure passage of most (some?) of the package through the Senate and Senator Wong’s remarks are better than a unilateral knockback. But not much. Mr Pyne has a problem, previous supporters are defecting, giving the Senate cross bench cover to amend the government’s package on the basis that they are acting on the experts’ advise. Mr Pyne is defending his reforms in a piece in Fairfax papers yesterday (typical Pyne to boldly foray into enemy territory) but I doubt this will do much good in convincing anybody. The minister is immensely competitive on the policy game but in the political arena, this morning, not so much.

Provost and gamble

As universities start to grapple with pricing products (sorry degrees) in a competitive market it is beginning to dawn on some they need serious consumer marketing smarts. I wonder how many VCs will look to their own marketing academics to create price and product plans. And how many will turn to consultants experience in intensively competitive service brands? Less Proctor and more provost and gamble.

Canberra kicks the super tin

People long retired from NSW universities had a little-noticed budget win, with the Commonwealth picking up the liability for defined benefit funds. The funds, which stopped admitting members decades back, need more capital and the state government and individual universities want the feds to kick in. Which it has  agreed to do. What this will cost Canberra is not disclosed, “as the arrangement is subject to negotiation with the NSW Government.”

A week is a long time …

Ate the end of budget week Deakin Vice Chancellor Jane den Hollander announced that while there were good and bad bits in the budget the university would work well with what it got. “We will take heart from what we have achieved, be confident that we can make our own opportunities and that while change is now the only constant, we will find the path that enables us to meet the challenges ahead and do what we do best: provide education for the jobs of the future and research that makes a difference to the communities we serve.” But somebody must have given her some especially scary numbers of what the new federal funding foreshadowed because on Friday she warned of community service cuts to come, telling the Geelong Advertiser, “there are many, many, many things that Deakin Geelong does in the wider community that we will probably have to eliminate.”

Expert advice

For a comprehensive statement of higher education changes in the budget it is hard to beat the guide here and here, by Dr Coral Dow from the excellent Parliamentary Library. Inevitably Dr Dow is as careful as she is concise but she does come close to an informed opinion on what is emerging as the Senate stumbling block – what an increased interest rate will do to participation. “Such increasing debt may deter some students from undertaking a degree and override the incentive of higher graduate salaries that has seen students prepared to forgo income and take on debt in the HECS-HELP scheme.” Expect to see that quoted, a lot.

Beds to the west

Score one for the University of New South Wales and the University of Sydney, which are intensely irritated with Charles Sturt University’s remorseless push to create the Murray Darling Medical School. CSU gets a good hearing in the bush for its argument that the best way to end the shortage of doctors there is to train them on country campuses. The existing medical school reply that they do this already but CSU’s retiring chancellor Lawrence Willett seemed to suggest last week that the MDMS is just a matter of time. So the majors will be happy with a weekend editorial in the Orange Central Western Daily which praised Uni Sydney for expanding accommodation so more students could study at its School of Rural Health in the town. How many more students? Um, eight. I don’t think this is will be enough to shut CSU up.

Know something the world needs to know? Anonymity guaranteed but lots of questions asked, stephen4@hotkey.net.au