What the hell's going on in higher education politics?

December 08, 2014
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For the last week, politics has been in shambles. Tony’s polls dropped faster than a raver at Rainbow Serpent. Victorians are seeing red after a knock out defeat of a one-term Liberal government. Karl Stefanovic made breakfast TV look like an episode of Lateline and Jacqui Lambie made some sounds that almost seemed like sense. And amongst all of this, notable C-bomb enthusiast and Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, was meddling with your HECS debt.

Since the federal budget burst into our national consciousness like a blister in the sun in May, the deregulation of university fees has loomed over the horizon. The legislation, set to begin in 2016, would give universities unfettered freedom to set their own fees based on market value. Critics argue that $100,000 degrees in fields such as medicine could become prevalent.

In addition, graduates would have to repay debt earlier – once they start to earn $50,638, down from $53,345. While Pyne has made some last minute concessions on the legislation, such as keeping the interest on HECS loans tied to inflation not the higher bond rate, he still wants to cut university funding by 20 per cent.

Last week, said bill hit the senate. Despite these concessions and some last minute pleas by the government, it was shot down 33 to 31.

For Pyne, the week just got worse. Palmer United Senator ‘the brick with eyes’ Glen Lazarus, accused him of harassment, saying he had been inundated with messages from the education minister.

Un-united Lambie likened Pyne to a used car salesman ‘trying to flog a lemon in Sydney’s western suburbs.’ Whilst that analogy may not make total sense she also went as far to quote the old ALP gem of ‘Liberals who think they are born to rule and lord over normal Australians.’ Lemon quote aside, she’s clearly not on board. He then received a grilling from Karl Stefanovic, who eventually told him to man up and call a double dissolution.

Pyne is pining (sorry not sorry) hard for future students’ debt and he’s not to be underestimated. The frontbencher is gearing up for round two in the senate. He’s offering more concessions, in an attempt to appeal to the balance of power. He’s also sent Lazarus a Christmas card, for Pyne’s sake let’s hope it was more charming than his previous texts.

Deregulation is the cherry in the Liberal pie. The word alone can get their nipples hard.  Whilst there’s something slightly attractive about ditching the difficulties of bureaucracy and running off into the sunset hand in hand with free market economics and self-regulating institutions, the love affair has the potential to end in a big pool of debt for students. That cherry could dish out HECS hangovers bigger than any dose of Berocca can fix.

Universities will be forced to compete with each other on price. Whilst Pyne is certain this will keep fees low, there’s no proof. Deregulation mixed with fresh funding cuts will see universities charging more to sustain quality control.  It will create a rise in elite universities, exacerbating the existing contrast between richer and poorer education institutions.

If this is all starting to sound a little American, that’s because it’s meant to. Speaking in April, Pyne stated that we need to move towards an American model of tertiary education. 

The problem is that American universities are failing. Earlier this year Forbes compiled a list of problems the American education system suffered from. On the top was cost. They not only cited a direct loss of state support as the reason behind the cost rise but they also went on to note that the highest fee hikes have been at public colleges, where 75 per cent of students are enrolled. Great.

We need to be competitive, but cutting funding and giving university’s free reign to determine the cost of education is not the answer.  Education is not a right, it’s a responsibility. One that the state should provide at a realistic cost to students.

Cait Kelly