High stakes debate: deregulation divisions deepen

He said it

“I accept all challenges. That’s my problem,” University of Canberra VC and leading critic of deregulation Stephen Parker, via Twitter yesterday.

Could the cap fit?

Swinburne University is plugging away with its proposal to cap annual student borrowings, setting it out along with other options to contain course fees. It seems the university is looking beyond the present debate on bond rate or CPI alone or in combination with a starting fee, to a future where exponentially increasing student debt leads Treasury to demand a cap on places. While it sets out the strengths and weaknesses of various forms of price-setting Swinburne argues an annual cap on what students can borrow through the HELP scheme preserves the intent of the Pyne plan. “Higher education providers would be free to set any price for any degree, student choice would operate to moderate excessive fee increases. Both volume and price would be deregulated.” Um, debt caps may not a market make, even so Swinburne is putting an idea on the agenda which all sides of the debate might be able to accept as a compromise.

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From bucketing to bucket of money

Back in June Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane bucketed the Australian Skills Quality Authority for poor performance, publicly telling the agency he would not allow it to increase fees to the providers it regulates. ASQA must have lifted its game because yesterday Mr Macfarlane announced a budget increase of $68m to implement new standards and crack down on serious breaches of training regulations. “This is the first time ASQA has been properly funded to focus its attention on serious breaches of standards, after being forced to act as a book-keeper under the previous Labor Government.” Worth enduring the ignominy.

Opportunity knocks

What a bit of luck for Charles Sturt University VC Andy Vann, who was giving evidence to the Senate committee inquiry into deregulation yesterday. Chair Bridget McKenzie asked him to talk about the need for regional medical education. What, like the Charles Sturt and La Trobe universities proposal for a Murray Darling Medical School? That’s the one. The one that would have a Bendigo campus, where Senator McKenzie has an office? The very same.

 Deregulation Hearings Day II

It was an argument between the policy of how deregulation will work and the politics of why it shouldn’t and on the rhetoric yesterday politics prevailed.

International accord

Phil Honeywood from the International Education Association of Australia started day two of the Senate committee hearings on the deregulation legislation with a strong statement in support, which Labor’s Senator Kim Carr ignored, asking a series of questions on Australian spending on higher education compared to the OECD.

Inquiry chair Bridget McKenzie countered, asking whether the Pyne package continued the intent of the Bradley Review and if Australia faced increased international competition. To which Mr Honeywood agreed. But he didn’t when Senator Carr challenged him on the claim that funding had declined, stating he was referring not to a decline in overall resources but those needed to compete internationally. What was interesting about the exchange is the insight into Senator Carr’s intent – after yesterday it is starting to look like he is as intent on protecting Labor’s reputation as winning this argument.

Dewar dignified on detail

La Trobe VC John Dewar also appeared yesterday morning, as chair of the finance and legislation working group which advised the minister on implementing deregulation. He reported on the group’s work calmly and deliberately, politely declining the opportunity to argue with Senator Carr and explaining its recommendation, that private providers should receive 70 per cent of public funding per EFTS, because they do not cross-subsidise research. There was a long exchange on the proposed discipline funding bands, which had little to do with the politics but a great deal of relevance to the policy of deregulation. Lee Rhiannon (Greens-NSW) also had questions, which began with her asking whether Professor Dewar was interviewed for the position as working group chair and whether it took submissions. (He wasn’t and the working group talked to stakeholders). She also asked whether deregulating training in Victoria showed the market did not work. It is why, Professor Dewar replied, it is important to neither under nor over fund public subsidies – thus the working group had hit on the 70 per cent. A bravura policy performance.

Preference for planning

Will universities lower their fees under deregulation? It was the big question and a sceptical Senator Rhiannon put it to the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s Jenny Lambert, who said that she had more faith in the market than the senator, adding while she did not know for sure, she thought fees, in regional universities say, might not go up. However Lee Thomas from the Nursing Federation was not having any of it saying she “was under no illusion” that fees for nursing students will not decline. There is also a need for workforce planning, she and colleague Annie Butler argued.

Dr Debbie Neutza from the Australian Veterinary Association agreed, warning that a private provider had 3000 vet nurse students who could not complete their qualifications because there were not enough clinical practise placements.

Ice cold Aidan

Australian Research Council chief Aidan Byrne arrived, said what he hoped for the ARCFuture Fellows and NCRIS surviving – and then spent the rest of his time, refusing to be drawn by Senator Rhiannon on whether deregulation was a good or bad thing. “On balance the ARC’s contribution to research in the sector is ahead,” he said. At which point Senator Rhiannon gave up. The day is yet to occur, and probably never will, when Professor Byrne ever says more than he intends.

Student cost frames the debate

Ben Phillips from NATSEM presented the results of modelling (written up with Uni Canberra VC and opponent of deregulation Stephen Parker) of student loan repayments – including the University of Western Australia’s proposed fees under deregulation. This he said would be very bad indeed for nurses and teachers – they could end up paying $100 000 plus to pay off their study loans over 16 years. It was damaging evidence that Senator Carr made the most of. And Senator McKenzie knew it, directing Mr Phillips to answer her questions as to his qualifications. She also pressed him on why universities would price themselves out of the market by charging up. He held his ground, declining to comment on anything beyond the course costs and repayments in his modelling, with Senator Carr intervening on his behalf. It demonstrated how determined the government is to shift the focus from student debt to the potential of competition to contain costs.

Failure not foredained

When Martin Riordan and Melinda Waters appeared on behalf of TAFE Directors Australia Senator Carr asked whether deregulation of VET in Victoria was a sign of things to come in higher education. Mr Riordan disagreed, pointing to TEQSA and proposals for fee monitoring and suggesting that the Victorian experience showed not what to allow. Senator Rhiannon went on to ask whether he believed in a market approach or because deregulation would provide access to a new funding stream. Mr Riordan responded carefully pointing to the “skills mismatch” and “the real needs of industry”. “Our industry partners want more job-ready graduates and they applaud the type of graduates that TAFE delivers.” Mr Riordan is too wily a veteran to miss a chance to speak up for his sector. And when Senator Rhiannon suggested deregulated VET in Victoria “sold young people a pup” he pointed out that the state government stayed out of the national voc ed regulatory system and expressed his confidence in TAFE. It was a polished performance on behalf of a too often ignored interest group.

Workers united

Jeannie Rea and researcher Paul Kniest from the National Tertiary Education Union joined with Angelo Gavrielatos and Pat Forward from the Australian Education Union to present the most comprehensive case against deregulation of the day. The NTEU argued student costs will increase. The AEU warned demand driven deregulation reduced the academic quality of graduates seeking to enter the profession. They also opposed increased loan interest rates, lest they drive teachers with big bills out of the occupation in search of higher pay.

Perhaps it was because both unions’ opposition is so well known but whatever the reason the questioning was subdued, leaving the speakers all but unchallenged in arguing the market has failed and will fail students. And when Senator Carr asked Ms Rea whether she was “concerned” by the prospect of campus closures she accepted the ball and ran with it. The same when he asked about the responsibility of government to fund education. “Education is too important to be left to market forces,” Ms Rea argued.  After 45 minutes Senator McKenzie had had enough and complimented the NTEU on a successful scare campaign in selling the idea of $100k degrees – which she said, had stuck in the public mind. Mr Kniest replied that the union acknowledged that such degrees would be the top end not the norm. Fair enough, but Senator McKenzie is right – the $100k degree is the number people remember.

An amigo short

Vice Chancellor Paul Wellings (U of Wollongong) and Charles Sturt’s Andy Vann turned out to be the last witnesses of the day and Senator Carr saved his best, or at least loudest, for last. Both VCs suggested that deregulation was unavoidable because of past government funding cuts and the inevitability of more to come. But Senator Carr was not having any of it. He argued that real funding increased throughout the last Labor government and he pressed both to acknowledge that if the Senate knocks back the funding cut to come before it universities will get the money Education Minister Pyne intends to take away. If the pair were convinced that this made deregulation unnecessary they did not look it.

And there the hearing unexpectedly ended. UWS VC Barney Glover was supposed to follow Wellings and Vann but he could not be found. So Senator MacKenzie adjourned for the day, no doubt delighting in the prospect of doing it all again today.

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