University funding & fee "reforms" reinforce privilege
by Bob Briton Few could still doubt the militant (ruling) class-consciousness and bias of the Federal Government. While Federal Education Minister Brendan Nelson, may say that the funding and fee changes announced in last week's Budget will improve access and choice for the battlers in the community, the package actually puts university study further out of the reach of low income earners. The "reforms" also provide extra opportunities to wealthy students to take up uni places that would be denied them on the grounds of ability. After overseeing $5 billion worth of cuts since taking office in 1996, the Howard Government last week announced $1.5 billion in new funding for universities for the 2004-2007 period. At the same time, the Government will allow universities to increase course fees by up to 30 percent above the current fee charged under the Higher Education Contribution Scheme* (HECS). Students currently studying law, dentistry, medicine and veterinary science may have their fees increased from $6136 a year to up to $8355 a year. Humanities students are presently committed to paying $3680 a year for their study. This can increase to a maximum of $5010 a year. These fees are either paid upfront (with a discount) or through the HECS deferred payment scheme after completion of studies. The Education Minister argues that universities will have to compete for students on the price and quality of their courses. He has suggested that some course fees might even come down. However, none of the realistic commentators doubt that institutions will have to slug the maximum permissible fees because of the effects of the funding drought of recent years. Only teaching and nursing students are to be spared the fee increases. The Minister is also making much of the increase in the income threshold above which students are expected to start repaying their HECS debt. This currently stands at the paltry figure of $24,365 per annum. The budget package proposes to lift this to $30,000, which is still a fraction of the ministerial incomes of Brendan Nelson or Peter Costello and is not likely to be a comfortable personal income in Australia in 2004. By the way, both these staunch advocates of user pay services received free university educations! Nelson is also quick to point out the introduction of a number of scholarships to help disadvantaged students. Most of these are for trifling amounts compared to the overall costs of tertiary education. The Commonwealth Education Costs Scholarship, for example, will give 2500 undergraduate students $2000 a year for up to four years. The Commonwealth Accommodation Costs Scholarship will grant 1500 students $4000 a year. Increased fees alone will effectively wipe out the benefit of these scholarships. By far the worst of the pro-rich measures adopted with the Budget package is the increase in the number of full fee-paying positions to be offered by universities. At the moment, only 25 per cent of the student places can be offered on this basis. This is to be increased to 50 per cent. These students will have to find fees at least double the amount due under the HECS arrangements. These degrees could cost more than $100,000! Universities may be forced by economics to offer more full fee-paying positions at the expense of the publicly funded ones. Students with higher entry scores will lose out as their cashed up counterparts take advantage of the new two-tier education system. The Minister has announced the introduction of a new federally funded loan system. The HELP scheme (please don't laugh at the acronym) will provide a "study now, pay later" loan of up to $50,000 towards the costs of a degree. Repayments will have interest levied at the rate of the CPI plus 3.5 per cent. The balance of cost of these $100,000-plus degrees will have to be sourced from loans on the open market. Universities may as well hang up signs: "Poor kids need not apply". Older working class women and sole parents, in particular, can forget about returning to study with plans to re-enter the workforce. Another nasty measure, directed at the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), is the promise of an extra $404 million in funding to be shared among universities that force their staff onto individual contracts and deny their rights to take industrial action. The Minister is also looking into ways to prevent students from joining their union.
* * **HECS places in courses are allocated on the basis of merit, and are partially funded by government.