EDITORIAL

The quality of instruction at all universities needs to improve if we are to compete globally.

The quality of instruction at all universities needs to improve if we are to compete globally. Photo: Fiona Morris

Social mobility is the core of egalitarianism. Your destiny is not determined by your birth; your opportunities not by your class. And the greatest way to preserve social mobility is to protect equality in educational opportunity.

Having all but jettisoned the equitable Gonski reforms to schools funding, the government has shifted its sights towards greater user pays in higher education, without knowing the consequences.

Like the most extreme measures of the 2014 budget, the government is taking a hit-first and talk-later approach.

While the Herald supports greater flexibility and freedom of choice across the economy, the Abbott government’s proposed reforms to higher education are at best premature and at worst an affront to the national ethos.

The Commonwealth will reduce its contribution to course fees by an average of 20 per cent. In return, universities will be free to increase fees at will up to the level they charge international students.

In theory, universities will charge more for better-quality offerings in high demand while focusing less on cheaper, less popular courses.

Australia does need elite universities at the cutting edge of research and, just as important, teaching. The quality of instruction at all universities needs to improve if we are to compete globally.

All this costs money. Taxpayers cannot be expected to fund an open-ended loans scheme without some eye to sustainability.

But how to achieve reform is problematic.

Under the government’s plans some courses may fall in price. Yet many others will cost much more, with a significant risk of fee gouging.

Rather than protect students to ensure equality of opportunity, the government plans to undermine one of the great egalitarian institutions of Australian public policy, the home-grown, income-contingent loan scheme HELP, formerly HECS.

Students will be forced to start paying off their HELP debts earlier and, most worryingly, the loans will accrue from the outset compound interest rather than mere indexation for inflation.

The personal debt blow-out threatens to increase the advantage for families which can pay fees upfront to avoid interest or help students as they embark on their chosen career.

More potential students without such support, along with those living in regional areas, may well baulk at the higher debt. Some may even shun university altogether, notwithstanding plans for universities to put 25 per cent of extra fee income into an uncertain scholarship scheme.

Students whose courses lead to socially important but less highly paid careers will be hit especially hard. Their debts will accrue most interest as they will take longest to repay. Fees and resultant student loans for nursing and teaching degrees will rise sharply, for instance, providing a significant deterrent to careers in the caring professions.

Women who spend more time out of the workforce will suffer too, as will mature students with a shorter working life.

At its core, this heavily market-based approach will force students to focus on courses that offer to return most financial gain personally. They will work against studies that bring breadth and depth to the sum total of community knowledge, often not in the business domain.

The fee freedom will certainly embed advantage among elite universities, which have the assets to market themselves most easily at the expense of smaller rivals.

But the extra income flowing to the big eight universities will not necessarily go into better teaching. Indeed, it may end up in research to bolster global rankings.  What’s more, extra fee income across all universities is just as likely to be invested in social or sporting facilities, rather than more and better lecturers or tutors.

Smaller regional universities will have the added pressure from non-public education providers who will be able to attract students by offering for the first time access to HELP-style loans for diploma and associate diploma courses. Private institutions often have a lower cost base and will be exposed to less regulation thanks to budget cutbacks.  No doubt some smaller public universities will reduce their offerings or worse.

The Herald believes Australians support equal access to university based on merit and that most taxpayers are happy to subsidise higher education for the good of all society.

The only questions are how much and who has to pay the most. It is a debate the Abbott government should have been leading before this budget, rather than delivering radical reform as a fait accompli.