But will the extra cash go to Canberra or campuses

Pyne lays it on the line

If Education Minister Christopher Pyne has his way students will pay more of their course costs under the HELP scheme, with loan payments kicking in at a lower income level. These are both Commission of Audit ideas that appeal to the minister. As he told Matthew Abraham and David Bevan on Adelaide radio, Friday; “I certainly think that university students get a tremendous advantage from going to university and they only pay when they have future income. So they don’t pay upfront of course. They take a loan from the taxpayer and they pay back forty per cent of their cost of being educated and they get an enormous benefit. I think that that is too low.

“Do I think students get a good deal under the extraordinarily generous loan program that we have, the answer is: yes. Do they get a better long-term life income and low unemployment rates in the general community, yes they do. They currently pay about forty per cent of the costs of their education. Later on in life when they earn over fifty-thousand dollars a year, I think that is quite reasonable, but I don’t see why they should be – there’s no reason for students to complain if they are asked to contribute more when everybody is being asked to contribute more to pay back Labor’s debt and deficit and the mess they’re created.”

Not, you understand, that this has anything to do with the budget, Mr Pyne made plain. But in the immortal words of Mandy Rice Davis, he would say that wouldn’t he. Some university lobbies assume that if the minister is signally a new policy campuses will get the cash. Perhaps – but under this idea Canberra could just keep it.

But whose bottom line?

University chiefs who assume increased student fees will flow straight to campuses should heed what Mr Pyne did not say on ABC’s Insiders yesterday. The Minister was asked whether universities would get the money from any increase in student HELP fees. Funnily enough he did not answer. It adds to the enigma in the Prime Minister’s speech to the Sydney Institute last Monday where he said university funding “would shift” and that they would have more opportunity to innovate.

Audit answers from the lobbies

Universities Australia took a couple of days to respond to the Commission of Audit report with a statement that variously agreed with the uncontroversial, offered to assist with policies still to be settled and pointed to the CoA’s acknowledgement of the importance of public funding for research infrastructure. But it was adamant on what is beginning to look like a CoA rec that will be in the budget – an increase in HELP fees. “If the Government decides to increase the student contribution, any savings should go to strengthening Australia’s tertiary sector, not serve as a substitute for public investment,” UA chair Belinda Robinson said.

UA was a ball of fire in releasing its response compared to the Group of Eight, which set out its position on Saturday morning. The Go8 opposed a lower HELP repayments threshold but otherwise endorsed the idea of students paying more via deregulated fees. “Deregulation, when combined with enhanced scholarship provision and the HELP system will enable Australian universities to compete in the increasingly competitive education environment,” Go8 chair and ANU VC Ian Young said.

As for the Australian Technology Network, spokeswoman Vicki Thomson, was pragmatic as ever, acknowledging quality research and teaching “come at a cost” but seeing a reversal of the payment ratio between government and students as “a second best option”, deterring mature age and low SES enrolments.

Spence spiked

At the University of Sydney Vice Chancellor Michael Spence thought students need to know his thinking on the Kemp Norton and Commission of Audit reports. So he offered student newspaper Honi Soit a piece – which the editors, all ten, declined. According to one of them, Felix Donovan, this is in line with the paper’s policy that only students are published in the print edition. However Mr Donovan says the editorial board offered to publish Dr Spence in online Honi, where a big piece has a larger audience than the 4000 copy print edition. But the VC wasn’t having it. Not to worry, he has other options. Dr Spence could send his message direct to everybody, staff and students alike, with a university email address. This is what Uni Melbourne VC Glyn Davis did last week. A UoS spokeswoman tells me “other methods for communicating to staff and students on current higher education debates are being actively considered.”

Less screaming than scheming

CRC Association chief Tony Peacock was campaigning against the Commission of Audit recommendation to shut the cooperative research centre program down within an hour of its announcement. He and association chair Tony Staley were off the blocks quick smart on Thursday afternoon , explaining the Commission’s folly. By Friday morning there was also a Twitter campaign “thankcrcsforthat”. It is not surprising that support is assembling. Vicki Thomson says the ATN opposes abolishing CRCs adding, “if Australia takes an approach of over-simplification to research collaboration then it will not be taking full advantage of basic research performed in Australia’s world class university system. Universities Australia also rallied around; “the Cooperative Research Centre programme has withstood the test of time as a highly effective approach to research/industry collaboration,” chief executive Belinda Robinson said. And if all this support is not enough I’m guessing the CRCA has a shock and awe weapon in reserve. Parliamentary Secretary Bob Baldwin is down to speak at its Perth conference this month. So is Bob Hawke – does the government have so many parly secs to spare that it can afford to have one eaten alive?

That’s a wrap

The Australian Film, Television and Radio School is advertising for a director of degree programs to, “initiate and oversee the delivery of a high quality degree program, including the new Bachelor of Arts (Screen) and Masters Degrees offered from 2015.” Can’t fault them for optimism – the AFTRS is on the Commission of Audit’s list of agencies to “review, with a view to merging, abolishing or transferring”


I was retained by the Commission of Audit to work on the drafting of its report

What government really thinks about fee deregulation

“The possibility that universities will charge higher fees and the application of a real interest rate on loans will be the most contentious aspects of the package. The pricing behaviour of universities after fee deregulation cannot be predicted with certainty. Some universities may seek to position at least some courses at the premium end of the market; others may seek to grow market share, including by exploiting delivery technologies which reduce costs. … In selling fee deregulation and loans with an interest rate to the public I propose emphasising the significant private returns from higher education, the lower rates of unemployment enjoyed by graduates and the good sense in allowing students to invest more in their own education.” This is from a cabinet brief, just not from Christopher Pyne. In fact it was by David Kemp, education minister under John Howard and recent reviewer of demand driven funding. The more things don’t change … (Thanks to the policy obsessive who pointed me at the document).

Big brief

Kim Carr spoke at a University of Newcastle graduation on Friday. It was a good speech, engaging, entertaining and focused on the graduates rather than politics. “This is a room of future lawyers and business types. Just think of the billable hours on a brief marked ‘change the world’. But the fact is, that’s the only brief we’re handing you today,” he said. Good thing the Commission of Audit did not think of that or there is no telling how much they would have wanted to hike HELP if they had.

More passages from India

Education exports were unequivocally up in March. After a couple of months of warnings about anomalies there is no qualification in Friday’s figures, which show big jumps in higher education. Year on year overall enrolments in higher education were up 6.6 per cent to 198,000 and commencements were up 16.6 per cent. VET also did well, at 80,000 enrolments grew by 4.5 per cent and commencements a solid 20 per cent. When ELICOS, schools and non-award courses are added total enrolments were 371,000 (up 9 per cent). The biggest market, China, was up 6 per cent and number two, India, rebounded year on year by 17 per cent.

Equivocal endorsement

Commercial journal publishers like Reed Elsevier have always had two things to comfort them in the face of open access attacks, (1) enormous profits on vast sales and (2) the support of the academic establishment, which is used to the status quo. But while the first continues the second is changing. From Cambridge scientist Richard Taylor reports the university’s VC Leszek Borysiewicz neatly summing up the situation at a recent Union Q&A; “Do I regret spending money with Elsevier? By and large yes I do because I think they’re rich enough already. And I have a particular problem that many academics in reality already provide all of the information already and all they do is peer review it and charge you back for publishing it. But the way the current system is structured and the way careers progress by publication we spend more frankly because we actually have more of the highest quality staff who publish in the highest quality journals and that is a circular argument as that’s why they’re deemed to be the finest quality individuals concerned. So in a perfect world yes we’d spend less with publishers but I can’t penalise individuals’ careers by not spending that money with publishers at the moment.” It’s the “at the moment” that is significant.