The Chair of the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee, Senator Bridget McKenzie, has presented to parliament a report supporting the Coalition Government’s proposed higher education reforms.
The committee’s report is the result of extensive consultation and hearings involving a wide range of mostly higher education stakeholders including students.
It focuses on the impact on regional, low SES and mature-aged students, access to and excellence in education, and the financial sustainability of universities.
The report found strong stakeholder support for the deregulation of fees and extending funding to sub-bachelor courses as well as to private universities and other higher education providers that will benefit more than 80,000 additional students. They include disadvantaged, Indigenous, regional and mature-age students, and those with low ATAR scores.
It notes fee deregulation already exists for postgraduate and international students and that many higher education providers see full deregulation as the next logical step.
“Institutions would be able to make independent choices about fees, teaching methods, courses to be offered, scholarships and other services….Fee deregulation will lead to greater competition, and with greater competition comes greater choice,” it says.
The report rejects claims of $100,000 degrees as a result of fee deregulation, stating: “The committee sees no compelling evidence supporting assertions that fees will rise so dramatically that large swathes of the population will opt out of higher education.”
It also found there is no basis to comparisons with other deregulated higher education systems and associated high student debt, as a directly comparable system does not exist.
“….Australia's higher education system is unique in comparison to its international deregulated counterparts, as the reform package will ensure that no up-front financial barriers to access higher education for all students, irrespective of their means….Safeguards are in place in Australia to see the system improve with deregulation without experiencing the negative consequences seen abroad.”
The report includes recommendations to address concerns raised by stakeholders and sections of the community. (See below)
The report welcomes the government’s $11 billion investment in research including $139 million for the Future Fellowships scheme that supports midcareer researchers to undertake world-class research in Australia. It acknowledges concern about a proposed optional student contribution under the Research Training Scheme, but notes universities may choose to offer scholarships to cover these costs and HELP loans will also minimise any financial impact.
The report stresses the need for a sustainable higher education sector, acknowledging successive governments have for various reasons been unwilling or unable to maintain the levels of funding required for it to flourish.
“While this government believes the higher education system must be fair and equitable for all Australians, it does not share the naïve view that funding can just be sourced from a bottomless public purse. Students themselves, who enjoy a lifetime of benefits from the higher education they receive, must make a fair contribution. But thanks to the HELP system of deferred payment on student loans, no one will be asked to pay for their education until they are making a decent living,” it says.
“The model being proposed is unique in the world for its innovation and fairness, and must be seen for what it is: a much-needed, socially progressive overhaul of an unsustainable system.”
Recommendation 1: The committee recommends that guidelines for the Commonwealth Scholarship Scheme seek to address some of the financial barriers faced by students from low SES backgrounds and regional communities in accessing higher education.
Recommendation 2: The committee recommends that the government explore the provision of a structural adjustment package to assist certain sections of the higher education sector transition to a fully deregulated system.
Recommendation 3: The committee recommends that the government examine HELP indexation measures in light of evidence presented to the committee, recognising unforseen impacts of the proposed reforms on students.
Recommendation 4: The committee recommends that the government explore avenues to recover HELP debts of Australians residing overseas.
Recommendation 5: The committee recommends that the bill be passed.
The full report is available at: http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Education_and_Employment/Higher_Education/Report