Despite the obvious differences over fee deregulation, there is more agreement between the political parties on higher education than slogans suggest.
The public debate over student fees sometimes focuses on the unbridgeable gulf between all sides of politics. But lost in public commentary is the consensus on key issues requiring policy attention.
Since the budget and during the election, the ALP, Coalition and Greens have released detail on their proposals for post-secondary education. These indicate broad alignment in many desired outcomes, and some common policy prescriptions that span the political divide.
Both major parties and the Greens have broadly supported the continuation of demand driven funding. There is widespread agreement that their should be broad access for all students who would benefit from higher education. This is no small commitment. The current rules guarantee government funding and a HECS-HELP loan for every bachelor student a university is willing to enrol.
Yet, the current rules do not extend access to sub bachelor or postgraduate levels where Commonwealth supported places are capped. While providing uncapped access to three year degrees is a popular policy, its focus on bachelor level education is by no means the standard worldwide. The US higher education system, for example, is built on a combination of two year and four year degrees.
All sides recognise through their proposals that focusing funding on one level of education– a three year bachelor degree- is an anomaly. Since Budget night 2014-15 the coalition has had a policy to expand the system to sub bachelor.
Labor also recently indicated they wish increase the number of places available for sub bachelor degrees. If elected, Labor has announced it will establish Commonwealth Institutes, focused on sub bachelor education such as Advanced Diplomas and Associate Degrees, with the option to continue on to bachelor-level study at university.
In debates over access, the demand driven system is important, but not the complete solution it is sometimes made out to be.
There is also broad support from all sides for an innovation agenda with universities at its heart. The Coalition, as the Prime Minister continues to reiterate, has a National Innovation and Science Agenda to support our “agile” and “transitioning economy”. This includes significant commitments such as 10 year funding for research infrastructure, extending the $1.5 billion for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, as well as funding for the Australian Synchrotron and for the Square Kilometre Array. However, the government has made cuts to the CSIRO and the major grant issuing body, the Australian Research Council, over the last two years.
Labor have announced a competing innovation agenda, emphasising the importance of Science, Technology Engineering and Maths education, a theme integral to the Greens' policy proposals. The priorities differ but there is alignment on many of the policy aims.
Who pays what and when
There is also significant alignment between the ALP and Coalition on how students should pay back their HECS-HELP debts. Both major parties now support lowering the threshold for repayment of HECS-HELP debt so students repay their loan faster.
Moreover, both the Coalition and the ALP now support changing the rate at which Commonwealth grants are indexed from year-to-year. The current rate, which follows growth in wage costs across the professions, is to change to one that follows the consumer price index. This likely means a lower rate of funding into the future for universities.
Both major parties have made it clear there will be trade-offs in shaping future higher education policy.
Differences in party policy are more apparent on the issue of how students should contribute to their education. The Coalition has floated the idea of allowing universities to opt-in to a funding system providing a limited number of flagship courses with higher fees– a managed form of deregulation.
However, the Coalition, while taking “full deregulation” off the table, have stated that “in finalising legislative reforms the Government will need to adjust the subsidy and student contribution rates to meet the financial sustainability outlined in the Budget.” This, in effect, suggests big savings are still sought from the education portfolio, likely in the territory of a twenty per cent average cut to the Commonwealth Grants Scheme. This means students will most likely pay more.
So far though, it appears likely students will pay less in the immediate future under an ALP government than a Coalition one. The ALP, have argued against “$100,000 degrees” and outlined a guarantee of funding at close to current levels. While Labor does not support deregulated fees, it is unclear whether they have completely ruled out any future increase to student contributions.
The diverging voice here is the Greens, advocating a “free, well-funded and high quality, life-long education and training”, promising to reduce “students’ HELP costs by 20 per cent”. A policy many students and universities would welcome. Its significant cost to general public funds in implementing this policy would signal government recognition of the importance of higher education. This position may herald challenges in the passage of either Coalition or ALP policies through the Senate post-election.
While there is more agreement on many higher education policy issues than is sometimes acknowledged, there are still significant differences over what students should pay. All sides point to the fact that the demand driven system has seen a significant increase in real terms in the expenditure on higher education. They also acknowledge that any increase in public support for higher education comes at the expense of other policies. The difference is one of priorities.
Authors: Gwilym Croucher, Senior Lecturer, Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne