Rethink funding reforms, Australian government told

Proposed university funding changes are unnecessarily complex and ‘rife with unintended consequences’, laureate professors say

July 21, 2020
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Canberra should scrap its proposed changes to undergraduate course funding and revive the “flat rate” fees that characterised the early days of Australia’s revolutionary student loans scheme, according to an open letter signed by dozens of the country’s top professors.

The 73 laureate researchers say that the “Job-ready Graduates” reform package will “work against the very economic goals it is trying to achieve” by discouraging the acquisition of skills needed for post-Covid recovery.

The reforms will also divert resources into regulatory efforts to prevent profiteering from the new funding arrangements, while “amplifying inequities” by making certain fields “the province of those who can pay more for them”, the signatories argue.

The letter says that the package should be “shelved in its current form”, and the government should consult experts in the sector to craft “an optimal mechanism for building this vital part of our society’s future”.

The changes, unveiled by education minister Dan Tehan on 19 June, would overhaul the current array of fees and subsidies and shift more of the overall course costs on to students. The government would reinvest the savings to bankroll more university places, as well as funding new schemes to boost participation by regional students and encourage universities to work more closely with businesses.

The open letter, published on The Conversation, applauds the “much-needed intent to boost domestic student enrolments”. But it says this should not be funded “from an arbitrary subset of future students at the outset of their careers in a time of great uncertainty”.

And it scorns the strategy of discouraging study in the humanities and social sciences (HASS) – and shepherding students into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields – because that is supposedly where the jobs of the future will be.

“Successive Australian governments have refrained from ‘picking winners’ in industry, but here we see that approach applied to education precisely at a time when future needs are becoming more heterogeneous and unpredictable,” the letter says.

“The proposed changes reflect an outdated view of both HASS and STEM. Each is concerned with advancing our understanding of the world and providing the intellectual framework and critical thinking skills needed to acquire that understanding.

“These will be critical for creating a flexible, responsive workforce in an increasingly diverse economy. In the face of uncertainty about where future needs will lie, what we can be sure of is that interdisciplinary training will become ever more important.”

The letter was authored by Australian National University linguist Nicholas Evans and University of Queensland economist John Quiggin, among others. It has been signed by a who’s who of Australian academia from both STEM and HASS disciplines, including UNSW Sydney artificial intelligence guru Toby Walsh and Swinburne University astrophysicist Matthew Bailes.

It says that differential pricing is “unhealthy” for every academic field: “The best outcomes grow from an optimal match between disciplines and the talents and interests of those who want to study them, undistorted by arbitrary price signals.”

The laureates say that higher education policy should avoid complexity and increase funding for universities in real terms, while integrating the funding of higher and vocational education: “What is really needed is not a vocational approach to university education but a more thoughtful approach to vocational education.”

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