"It is time for them to decide whether they really want freedom": Education Minister Christopher Pyne. Photo: Andrew Meares
- Christopher Pyne: My vision for higher education
- Amanda Vanstone: Uni fee protesters: stop being selfish thugs
- The Pulse Politics Live with Judith Ireland
Education Minister Christopher Pyne has challenged universities not to increase fees for current school leavers, saying it is their call whether to include them in a deregulated fee system from 2016.
Following a wave of criticism, Mr Pyne called on vice-chancellors to embrace the freedom he is offering them through a deregulated fee system and wave through students who enrol next year under the existing capped fee system. He compared some university vice-chancellors opposed to his reforms to birds who have been released from a cage but are too afraid to fly.
Last week, university leaders voiced fears that as many as 160,000 school leavers and mature age students who could enrol at university over the next 18 months were exposed to fee uncertainty.
Under the government's plan, these future undergraduates would only be exempt from the new fees for their first year of study. After 2016, they would pay the new fees for the rest of their course.
However, many universities said they would be unable to finalise the new fees until next year, well after students have made their course choices, potentially exposing them to tens of thousands of dollars extra in unexpected charges.
In an interview with Fairfax Media, Mr Pyne outlined how he was willing to negotiate on his higher education reforms, including the HECS-HELP student interest rates and the salary threshold when when debt repayments kick in. However, he put the onus on universities to end the confusion over students enrolling over the next 18 months.
''Universities could easily say, as part of their policies, that if you enrol for a degree under one system you will stay in that system. That is entirely a matter for them,'' Mr Pyne said.
''The university sector has been asking for freedom for decades. Now it is time for them to decide whether they really want freedom or whether they just said they did.''
Universities Australia chief executive Belinda Robinson accused Mr Pyne of cost shifting, saying his argument failed to acknowledge that the government would proceed with cutting funding by an average of 20 per cent per student place.
''It's difficult to see how that could be achieved,'' she said. ''It's not fair and equitable and not going to deliver best outcomes.''
Ms Robinson said the universities were particularly concerned about the interest rate on student loans and its impact on people repaying the loan who moved out of the workforce for a period of time, especially women having children.
At the moment, students pay the inflation rate on their HECS/HELP debts, which is about 2.9 per cent. From 2016, students will be charged the 10-year government bond rate (currently 3.8 per cent) up to a maximum of 6 per cent.
Mr Pyne has created two working groups to advise him on the reforms. Former top bureaucrat Peter Shergold will chair a group examining regulation while La Trobe University vice-chancellor John Dewar will examine their financial aspects.
The minister said he would ''work night and day to achieve higher education reform''.