A stronger scholarship system would help poorer students. Gough Whitlam's death focused attention on his decision to abolish university fees. But, far from opening the door to people from disadvantaged backgrounds, the share of students from families in the bottom socioeconomic quarter remained static at about 16 per cent after 1974. The sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers remain heavily represented in those university courses, just as they were 40 years ago when the Whitlam government's decision diverted public money to middle class and wealthier families. From a fairness perspective, there is no reason tradies, shop assistants and labourers should be subsidising 60 per cent of the cost of university education for those whose courses will provide lucrative earnings.
A deregulated system would help academically talented students from poorer families gain a first-rate university education, provided the extra revenue was ploughed back into needs-based scholarships and bursaries, as Adam Creighton reported yesterday.
University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence argues deregulation would allow his university to double its scholarship program, providing assistance to about one-third of students. Universities would have a strong incentive to boost scholarships to attract the best and brightest.
Instead of closing their minds to the Abbott government's proposed higher education reforms, Labor, the Greens, Palmer United Party and independent senators should think about the importance of quality teaching and research to Australia's economy and well-being. Universities Australia, the Group of Eight, the Australian Technology Network of Universities, the Regional Universities Network, Innovative Research Universities, TAFE Directors and independent universities all want the reform package passed, with many advocating amendments to guarantee fairness. The reason for such unanimity is that the future of the sector is at stake.
As vice-chancellors Glyn Davis and John Dewar wrote on Tuesday, growth at the margins under the present heavily regulated system has allowed universities to squeeze more students into the classroom. That was not the way to excellence but an inevitable outcome of current policy. It has led to, among other problems, the training of more than 40,000 teachers in NSW who can't find jobs.
A nation of 23.6 million cannot sustain 37 public universities all tied to similar fees. There is room for eight to 10 elite research universities, which would be able to command top fees. A flexible system would also encourage specialisation among technical, regional and suburban universities, many at lower cost. If his reforms are to pass, Education Minister Christopher Pyne will need to compromise; fee gouging must be discouraged through market design.
But Universities Australia chief executive Belinda Robinson was right to urge senators not to “kick the can down the road” to the next generation and risk the quality and sustainability of higher education.