Australian government shelves plan to uncap fees

New education minister Simon Birmingham announces at THE summit in Melbourne that controversial policy will not come in next year

October 1, 2015
University of Melbourne
University of Melbourne

The Australian government, led by new prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, has shelved plans to remove caps on tuition fees next year.

Mr Turnbull deposed the former prime minister, Tony Abbott, last month, taking over the leadership of the Liberal Party and the country.

An early policy change has been to shelve Mr Abbott’s controversial plan to allow universities to set their own fees from 2016, widely judged to have contributed to his government’s problems.

Mr Abbott’s government had also planned to cut direct public funding for universities by 20 per cent.

There will now be no change on fees until the 2017 academic year at the earliest, after the next election.

The move was announced by the new education and training minister, Simon Birmingham, in a speech at the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit, held at the University of Melbourne.

Mr Birmingham said: “With only three months left in 2015, it is necessary to give both universities and students certainty about what the higher education funding arrangements for 2016 will be.

“Therefore, today I am announcing that higher education funding arrangements for 2016 will not be changed from currently legislated arrangements, while the government consults further on reforms for the future. Any future reforms, should they be legislated, would not commence until 2017 at the earliest.”

Mr Birmingham also said: “When I reflect upon my personal experience – government schooled, in a below average socio-economic area, with parents who never attended a university, I am resolutely committed to equitable access.

“To those who claim consideration of reform is about ideology or privilege, you are dead wrong. I will only ever champion reforms that achieve both equity and excellence.”

He criticised the last Labor government, which uncapped student numbers, for not providing “a sustainable basis for funding” to match the extra students.

The plans to scrap fee caps had originally been announced in the 2014 budget.

Belinda Robinson, Universities Australia chief executive, said: “The debate must now focus on how we deliver strong and sustainable funding that enables our universities to continue the world class education and research that Australia needs.”

She added: “The confirmation that next year’s funding will be unchanged gives the sector optimism that the proposed 20 per cent funding cut [A$1.9 billion or £900 million] for university education in future years could be scrapped.”

Bruce Chapman, regarded as the architect of Australia’s income-contingent loans system, told THE last year that he was “gobsmacked to see the radicalness of the suggested reforms”.

The professor of economics and director of policy impact at the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy, a former Labor adviser, warned that universities could raise fees to extremely high levels using the government-backed income-contingent loans system.

He suggested that under the proposed changes, fees for domestic students would be capped at the levels of those for international students. In 2013, the University of Sydney charged overseas undergraduates up to A$40,000, rising to about A$62,000 in medicine.

Labor had attacked the government for wanting to create “$100,000 degrees”.

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