: Sleepwalking to the privatisation of universities

Sleepwalking to the privatisation of universities

Stephen Parker

what-do-get-for-my-money-sk-smProposed higher education funding reforms are unfair to students and poorly designed policy. If they go through, Australia is sleepwalking towards the privatisation of its universities. And ironically they will be the death knell of our peak group, Universities Australia, which could not survive them for long. Let me explain.

These reforms are unfair to students. They have to lead to significant increases in student debt because this is part of the government’s case for them. Minister Pyne says the reforms are a way to bring fresh funding into universities, so he must assume that we will go further than just replace government cuts with higher tuition fees.

Australian students already pay a higher proportion of their tuition than those in most OECD countries. This will blight the lives of a generation, unless Australia comes to its senses. On 1 December 2014 Mission Australia released its Youth Survey showing that most teenagers rank career success as their top aspiration, but only around half feel the goal is attainable. It will become a whole lot harder under these changes.

And the impact on women and certain professions will be worse, as Ben Phillips and I have demonstrated in articles in The Conversation, when we modelled the likely HECS debts of female scientists, nurses and teachers based on typical career trajectories.

These reforms are poorly designed policy. They emerged as a budget measure, but they won’t save the tax-payer money in any real sense. A fundamental feature of HECS is that the government forwards all the money upfront to the University. So if fees go up by more than the cuts, the Commonwealth shells out more from day one. Default will rise. More students will work overseas — legitimately, this is not evasion — and so only through some arcane aspect of accounting standards can this even look as if it is a savings measure.

This isn’t a savings measure: it is ideology in search of a problem.

But it gets worse. Bizarrely there is no guarantee that a single cent of the extra money will go into the student’s course: it could go into research, infrastructure, paying for past follies or current cock-ups. This is tempting, but it is wrong.

The internal equity aspect of the policy design is laughable: why should the second poorest quartile of students subsidise the lowest quartile?

In June this year I wrote in The Conversation about the slide towards privatisation. I compared universities with public utilities where the then managements were initially encouraged to be ‘commercial’ and ‘competitive’. Then they were actually pitted against private providers. Then the utilities were privatised themselves, and required a complete focus on private profit.

The privatisation that we are sleepwalking towards may or may not involve shareholders and the stock market — but it will involve the removal of the public voice.

I can hear the argument in my head already. Some Vice-Chancellor, perhaps one who has championed competition reforms in an earlier life or been the CEO of a large public company, will say: now that universities compete for places and on price, and they compete with private providers, including multi-nationals, we need a level playing field. We have one hand tied behind our backs. We need to be ‘set free’, so let’s get auditor-generals out of the place, let’s stop state governments appointing our Senates and Councils, and let’s get staff and students off them whilst we are at it. And so on. It will all have a compelling logic because of the corner we have boxed ourselves into.

On 4 December 2014 the Senate voted down the higher education reforms, but the Minister introduced a revised bill into the Lower House the following day, to have it ready for the Senate when Parliament resumes in 2015.

It is difficult to know whether we are at half time or in injury time. Maybe we have the same again to look forward to, or maybe this is a ruse and it is nearly over. Having a current bill before Parliament apparently allows the government to continue counting the assumed savings in its budget calculations, but the public opinion against the reforms is running so strongly that perhaps pragmatic heads will prevail over the summer and it will not return.


For our national governance there could be a lesson in statesmanship and honour. So much was at stake here, for the next generation and the future of the country, that ambushes, horse-trading, tacky offers of $400 million and being content to win by one vote, no matter whose, just demeaned the process and made one wonder whether education is in safe hands.

When asked whether he was planning to buy more players, an English football manager once replied that he had a number of irons in the fire but was keeping them close to his chest. I await more painful surprises.

So wake up Australia if you want to preserve your children’s life chances.

Wake up academia — especially those of you who write about public policy but have been strangely silent on this issue. Wake up Senators — you know not what you are playing with — you are aiding and abetting a fraud on the electorate.

Maintain the fight everyone. If the government will not take the honourable course of acknowledging that these reforms are a gross violation of pre-election promises and put them before the electorate, then we must make sure that they lose that election because of them. And I believe they will, as the Victorian state election last year indicated. Stand up everyone for public universities, reject the reforms; join us at the table for a sensible conversation, without a gun at our heads, about how to make Australian public higher education great.

STEPHEN PARKER is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canberra.

This Opinion is from an edited extract of a speech made by Stephen Parker at the NAPU Forum, University of Sydney, 1 December 2014, with additional text from an opinion piece published on 4 December 2014. The originals can be found at: — http://www.canberra.edu.au/blogs/vc/2014/12/01/speech-at-the-national-alliance-for-public-universities-napu/http://www.canberra.edu.au/blogs/vc/2014/12/05/its-injury-time-in-reform-debate/

© 2015 Stephen Parker

(2015) 40(1) AltLJ 2
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