Plus the Group of Eight explains why deregulation will not hurt

This just in

The University of Tasmania reports, “seaweed science comes of age.” Apparently there is a second edition of the standard text on seaweed first published 20 years ago, and “twenty years is a long time in global seaweed science.”

Hyperbole of the week

I know it is only Tuesday but it will be hard to beat the Australian Financial Review calling ANU VC Ian Young “embattled” for exaggeration of the week. This is less excessive than absurd. The AFR is outraged by the university’s announcement that it is selling out of a bunch of mining stocks because a consultant says they do not cut it for social responsibility. This may seem ridiculous on the Rialto but it will make the VC a hero at leafy-green (in more senses than one) ANU. For example, local National Tertiary Education Union official Stephen Darwin calls it, “good news for the university community and for the many Australians who are concerned about the clear and demonstrable risks of climate change.” What that Stephen Darwin, the one who railed for months against Professor Young’s support for deregulation and denounced his pay rise proposals last year? The very same.

But what does it mean?

A policy watcher who misses nothing suggests Senator Dio Wang (PUP-WA) is signalling something. He has tweeted about “small private higher education providers in Perth. Impressive career pathway builders – our best kept secret?” and about using “higher education entry pathways” to help disadvantaged students into agribusiness.  And yesterday he embedded UWA VC Paul Johnson‘s new video on the need for deregulation (see below) into a tweet. Does this look like support for some parts of the Pyne package – say funding sub degree programs and allocating Commonwealth Supported Places to private providers? Who knows, as the senator says “smart thinking means never demanding a ‘for or against’ response from thinking people. Devil is always in the detail.”

Day of days

As for calendar causes – the practice of appropriating a day/week/month, to a worthy purpose – here’s a sure-fire success. The University of Adelaide advises today is Global Handwashing Day. No they don’t mean relinquishing responsibility for increased student fees.

Revel in the ratings

According to the University of Sydney, over the last three months “it was as mentioned in 19,799 media clips, reaching an impressive collective audience across all mediums of more than 349 million people. This represents 22% of media coverage mentioning one or more of the Go8 universities; the highest ‘share of voice’ in the nation.” Whatever universities complain about ‘the media’ (whatever that means these days) beating bad stories up and getting good ones wrong there are plenty of senior people on campus who just love getting their picture in the paper or on Facebook


Oh good, another ranking

Today fortnight US News and World Report will publish a global university league table, which will do, well, what all the existing international rankings do. The global top 500 will use Thomson Reuters data to focus on research performance rather than teaching. Given the brand strength of the 30 year-old US News domestic ratings this new product will generate a lot of attention in the US – which I’m guessing means a healthy advertising premium but I wonder if it will tell us anything new about international competition that the other products don’t.

Anyone checking here

An incumbent US senator has had his masters degree from the US Army War College revoked because of plagiarism. Senator John Walsh (Dem-Montana) had already dropped out of November’s election. He joins a bunch of European, especially German, ministers who have lost their posts over plagiarism. Makes you wonder if people are pouring over the theses of Australian MPs and ministers looking for pinched prose. Is plagiarism even ICAC-able?

Group of Eight late


The Group of Eight’s communications MO used to be to stay above the media ruck, which surely makes yesterday’s three announcements a record. It looks like the group’s secretariat has realised the community has got the idea deregulation is a disaster for future students and decided that it is time to counter it. Good idea, god-awful timing. The Eight have cases to make – but they needed to be made right after the budget. The $100k degree as the norm may be wrong but it’s what people now think, lots of people.

The last word on US student debt

Last Thursday Ian “the gent” Young, wearing his Group of Eight chair hat and the organisation’s imminently outgoing executive director Mike Gallagher fronted the Senate inquiry on deregulation, where they copped critical questions from Senator Sue Lines (Labor-WA). Senator Lines wanted to know why the Go8 had not reported in a recent briefing paper that US state government’s often cap degree costs in public universities. Mr Gallagher replied that it was not significant because the US market is so vast and diverse. The Eight made the point again yesterday, releasing a snapshot of what a degree costs in the US, which rebuts the now all but universal assumption that American undergraduates end up paying $100k for their qualifications. The paper states that overall, bachelor degree graduates who borrowed to study owed $29k but half of those who studied at state institutions graduated owing less than $11k, when people who did not borrow are included.

Worse than worse case

The G8 also warned yesterday what could happen if student fees are not deregulated and Canberra cuts funding – universities will enrol a bunch of extra students to make up the shortfall. Quite a big bunch – 30,000 next year rising to 58 000 in 2017. “This would not be a good outcome, either for universities or for students, since arbitrary funding incentives would distort behaviour and rapid growth would threaten the quality of the student experience,” the Eight warn.

I’m guessing the group assumes lesser universities might enroll some/most of the 80 000 people now expected to study in sub-degree programs, but this is widely viewed as an optimistic number. And if Canberra went ahead and extended funding to private providers the extra students may enroll with them, not universities. The worse could be worse than the Go8’s worse case.

No losers

Finally, the Go8 advises that whatever fees are charged the income contingent loan system will ensure prospective low SES students continue to enrol. “Studies have found that income-contingent loans largely take fees out of the equation: since fees can be deferred, they do not present a barrier to access.” The introduction of fees in 1989 accompanied by what was then HECS and is now HELP did not push low SES numbers down, and hikes in ’97 and ‘05 “did not have a lasting impact on participation in general or by low SES students in particular.” And it isn’t only here, the policy note quotes Canadian expert Alex Usher whose study of nine European countries found, increasing fees do not reduce participation.

The conclusion, at least for the Eight, is obvious: “an income-contingent loan system means that fees can bring more resources into the system, expanding opportunities and improving quality. Deferring payment removes barriers to students, and limiting repayments to a set percentage of graduates’ income means that loans cannot be a disproportionate burden on graduates.”

UWA also explains

Paul Johnson, VC of Go8 member the University of Western Australia makes the case for deregulation in a new YouTube video. And understandably so, last month UWA DVC Alec Cameron announced all undergraduates will pay a flat $16 000 a year to study at the university. The announcement was light on for context and seized on by opponents of deregulation as a portent of horrors to come. So now Professor Johnson has made the policy case for change – previous governments have cut funding and “there is no real possibility of large numbers of taxpayer dollars coming into the sector”. So, as governments will not make up the shortfall, students must. It was standard stuff, competition will stop (unnamed) universities using “market power” and the loan system is fair, as long as Canberra drops its plan to link interest payments to the Commonwealth bond rate. What’s more, deregulation is in everybody’s interest, “without fundamental reforms Australian universities will go into decline and that decline will drag down the rest of the country.” Prepare to pay up student patriots.