Taking university funding from bad to worse

Jul 1, 2020

“A new rule of politics seems to be that no matter how badly the pollies have stuffed up some area of government responsibility, they can always make it worse.” This was the opening salvo to Ross Gittins’s recent opinion piece on the sudden changes to university funding.

The SMH article went on…” Enter the hapless federal Education Minister Dan Tehan”.

And enter he did – in the same edition of my morning newspaper – and duly made it all worse. Tehan told upcoming entrants to universities who might feel resentful about sudden fee hikes for their preferred courses of study that they should think themselves lucky because their university degrees are still being funded in part “by taxpayers who have mostly not benefited from a university education”.

There is more to this statement than meets the eye and none of it bodes well for the challenging future we now face.

For a start, it comes from a view of education as a ‘positional good’, a place on the ladder for which individuals compete, and implies that taxpayers who have not been to university to benefit personally from the resultant earnings and status should not have to contribute to the costs. I recall hearing this argument years ago in justification of the Hawke Government’s re-introduction of university fees along with the HECS scheme in 1989, which was designed to make domestic students pay a proportion of the cost of their degrees. This ended the era of free tertiary education introduced by the Whitlam Government in 1974. As was predicted in 1989, the costs of university funding to domestic students have progressively increased. But this has been accompanied by ongoing cuts to government spending, and increased reliance by universities on the fees charged to overseas students.

It is one thing for Tehan to defend the principle that students should contribute towards the cost of their university education through a deferred payment scheme such as HECS on the assumption that they will achieve higher earnings than others, although a more direct option would be a properly progressive taxation system.

But it is quite another thing for him to offhandedly hint that those who don’t go to university should not have to pay towards the costs for those who do. It has always seemed to me to be mean-spirited to take the view that study is some kind of indulgence on the part of students. It ignores the fact that a university degree means hard work, requiring them to invest time and effort and to forego income. Surely a healthy democracy would be celebrating its high academic achievers and supporting their efforts as a wise investment in a shared future.

It is certainly boof-headed to deny that those who do not themselves go to university for whatever reason gain no benefit from the education of those who do, since we rely as a society on the research, knowledge, skills and ideas generated by our universities and on the professionals who provide a range of essential services.

At a time when many Australians are going to face long-term hardship it is disheartening to sense the whiff of divisiveness in the Education Minister’s pronouncement with its potential to stir resentment on the part of taxpayers to supporting our universities. Are we going back to the ‘lifters’ and ‘leaners’ style of divisive rhetoric?

Moreover, Tehan’s pronouncement is quite hypocritical, coming as it does from a Minister in a Coalition government. What about the good old ‘politics of envy’? This is the traditional response from the conservatives to anyone who dares suggest that taxpayers have grounds to resent the fact that their taxes go to fund private schools with fees which put them well out of the financial reach of most families.

As the bible says, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”. And, disturbingly, the Coalition government’s heart is not in our nation’s public universities. Its Budget tells the story.

The $9.9 billion for the nation’s universities is well eclipsed by Commonwealth funding of $12.6 billion on private schools (which is greater even than that for universities and vocational education and training combined). To go back to the words of Ross Gittins in the article cited above, we are seeing the Prime Minister return to “playing friends and enemies”. The truth is that while the Coalition has been driving universities into a risky reliance on revenue from overseas students it has been using public funds to effect a dangerously under-regulated form of school privatisation.

A government that wished to encourage more students to study STEM subjects in university would have been doing more to support and strengthen teaching in our schools. Few young people are likely to be attracted to taking subjects in university in which they failed to develop any interest or proficiency at school. Perhaps more young people would be studying STEM subjects now if they were not growing up in a society where political leaders showed their contempt for climate science by brandishing a lump of coal in Parliament. Or where their leaders did not display their disregard for mathematics, accounting and truth, by turning their funding cuts to the ABC into funding increases.

If all of this is not an indication of “how badly the pollies have stuffed up some areas of government responsibility”, it is hard to imagine what would be. Imagining that this mess could be fixed by sending those on the brink of entering university a ‘price signal’, or that expressing contempt for the humanities would drive up enrolments in STEM is stupid.

The Morrison government’s changes to university funding have found little or no support from those who have expertise in higher education funding. And Dan Tehan’s feeble attempts to justify them can only make things worse.

And this is one of the worst times we have ever seen to make things worse for our universities.

Lyndsay Connors AO has held senior positions in education at both the national level and in NSW. In 2015, she was the co-author with Jim McMorrow of the report Imperatives in Schools Funding: Equity, sustainability and achievement, published by the Australian Council for Educational Research.

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