Gough Whitlam's vision of free university education was affordable when only about 5 per cent of the population was going to higher education. But with the proportion now close to 40 per cent, changes being put to Parliament by Education Minister Christopher Pyne are essential to maintain a high-quality university system open to all Australians. The key to maintaining both quality and opportunity is, of course, to allow the market to better reflect student choice, helped by scholarships for the disadvantaged.
Whether the reforms will pass the Senate in their present form, including the large scholarship program, will partly depend on the erratic Palmer United Party boss Clive Palmer, who has been making contradictory statements on his support for the changes. But, strikingly, Mr Pyne's basic package, including the deregulation of fees, is supported by the entire university sector leadership, from the old sandstone universities to the former technical colleges. The sector knows that the money to sustain a quality university sector and to compete with the rise of Asian universities and virtual universities is simply not there from the public purse alone.
University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence declared on the weekend that his university could double its $80 million scholarship program and increase the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds under fee deregulation. In these pages today, Monash University vice-chancellor Margaret Gardner explains why Mr Palmer is wrong to believe that Australia can return to the free university education Mr Whitlam's own party agreed in 1989 was not longer affordable.
An extensive higher-education sector, including vocational and professional training, is essential to turn out the trained people who keep our advanced, highly complex economy growing, and successive governments have recognised this. The first big expansion of Australia's university system came in the 1950s and 60s under prime minister Robert Menzies, when the number of students increased eightfold to 96,000. Numbers rose further after Mr Whitlam abolished fees entirely. The subsequent Labor government, under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating reintroduced fees but with an innovative twist: the subsidised student loans would only have to be repaid once the graduates were earning good money. So, under Labor's Higher Education Contribution Scheme, Australians from poorer backgrounds were not excluded by up-front fees.
At the same time, however, Labor kept a standardised straitjacket on universities, which now included former technical colleges. But, under the next Labor government again, education minister Julia Gillard liberalised one important part of the market by removing the cap on the number of students that Canberra would subsidise. This lead to another large jump in the number of university students. But that was accompanied by an apparent fall in standards as students with very low entry scores entered campus grounds. Not surprisingly, first-year dropout rates rose. And Labor cut back university funding, further undermining quality.
Mr Pyne's landmark reforms would complete the long journey of university policy begun under Sir Robert Menzies by deregulating the supply side as well as the demand side. That would recognise the true value of a degree and encourage universities to specialise in what they do best No longer would a law student at Charles Darwin University have to pay the same as a law student at Melbourne University, even though the job prospects of the latter would be far more lucrative. And, instead of paying 40 per cent of the cost of a course, Mr Pyne would require them to pay 50 per cent, but still not up-front. Though the Whitlamites won't recognise this, that's also fair enough.
Why should ordinary Australians who don't go to university subsidise 60 per cent of the cost of giving other Australians the qualifications that greatly increase their lifetime earnings.
The Whitlamites may not agree, but Labor recognised more than a decade ago that free university is unaffordable.