Plans to raise Australia’s tuition fee caps are “still on the agenda” politically and the “ground has shifted significantly” in favour of change, according to the chief executive of the Group of Eight.
Tony Abbott, the previous prime minister and Liberal party leader, wanted to deregulate fees from 2016. But the plan was thwarted by the Senate, the upper house of Australia’s Parliament, where the coalition government lacked a majority. The Labor opposition warned that deregulation could lead to A$100,000 (£48,000) degrees.
Mr Abbott was ousted by his party in September. Simon Birmingham, education minister in the government led by the new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, revealed in a speech at the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit at the University of Melbourne in October that “any future reforms, should they be legislated, would not commence until 2017 at the earliest” – after the next election.
The Group of Eight argues that fee deregulation offers a solution to government funding constraints and is the logical accompaniment to existing deregulation of student numbers.
Vicki Thomson, who leads the group of research-intensive universities, told THE during a UK visit that fee deregulation would “let market forces work their way through”, adding that there should be “adequate equity measures in place” alongside such a move.
Like England, Australia has a government system of income-contingent student loans.
The Senate, Ms Thomson said, was “controlled by six or seven independents, who I’ve spoken to, who are not going to support deregulation. I think to be fair to them – and to take a bit of criticism on the chin ourselves as a sector – we never really explained what the problem [requiring deregulation] was”.
The independent senators “didn’t understand that there were any financial issues, or that we were so heavily reliant on international student fees to fund research”, said Ms Thomson, formerly executive director of the Australian Technology Network of Universities and chief of staff to a former Liberal premier in the Australian state of South Australia.
Since then, she continued, “what we’ve had time to do is – both to the Senate, but also to the community – start to explain what the problem is. And that’s not just the Group of Eight, our peak body [Universities Australia] has been doing that…So I actually think the ground has shifted significantly.”
“I don’t think the federal opposition will ever support deregulation per se. But what we might be able to do – and certainly the minister [Mr Birmingham] is looking at different options – we could have a phased-in approach,” she said.
Ms Thomson said that she would be “speculating” if she commented on “whether or not they would reintroduce the legislation before an election…But I do believe it’s still on the agenda in some way, shape or form.”
Did the political row bring out the fact that there was public unhappiness about fee deregulation?
“The [Labor] opposition ran a very good campaign, and the university sector was unable to respond as quickly as it could, in terms of what would happen to university fees,” replied Ms Thomson.
She added: “There were some concerns…It’s just whether they were based on the reality of the situation.”