Just when I thought that neither major party was going to bother with higher education policies, both put out statements today. The Liberal statement is here; I can’t yet find Labor’s policy on its website.
Most attention seems directed at the Coalition’s decision to cut by about two-thirds the money Labor was planning to give universities according to their enrolments of low socioeconomic status students. The higher education sector is opposed to this, but I will support it. The Coalition’s policy document observes that the main problem is not the unwillingness of the higher education sector to offer places to low SES students, but that too few people from low SES backgrounds have the necessary academic preparation to go to university. The Liberals talk about their school policies as alternatives.
I have also argued that the government’s equity policy is based on an arbitrary definition of SES and assumes, contrary to the available evidence, that low SES students have much higher academic needs than other students. The program needs to be substantially reformed as well as its funding reduced.
The Coalition is also on the right track in effectively abandoning its policy to re-introduce full-fee domestic undergraduate places, accepting the criticisms made of it:
Allowing universities to re-introduce full-fee paying domestic places is an interim measure, as the introduction of the student demand-driven system in 2012 or thereafter will make these places obsolete.
Given that there is no prospect of the necessary legislation being passed in time to allow full-fee places to be offered in 2011, the full-fee place promise is now an irrelevance.
I was less pleased with a policy to resurrect the idea of letting students ‘volunteer’ to reduce their HECS (read HECS-HELP) debt. In a pilot programme involving 1,000 students they would spend up to 200 hours a year getting a $10 credit for each hour worked. This was one of the forgotten 2020 Summit ideas (though Liberal Senator Mitch Fifield has been promoting it for years), but it has never been a good idea for reasons I explained here.
Labor is confirmed as largely running on its higher education record. This is far less impressive than their statement makes out. Most of their spending to date has been financed by raiding the investment funds set up by the Howard government.
On the key issue of funding per student place they have imposed real cuts, both through maintaining the old indexation system and abolishing the full-fee domestic places (an improved indexation system will partially start next year, and be fully implemented in 2012). However it is their changes to migration law that will have the biggest effect, as they slow the flow of the international students than keep the higher education system going. Depending on how large the international downturn is, 2011 may deliver the higher education sector its biggest ever financial blows.
The main new thing announced in today’s policy was that they will legislate to protect academic freedom. I doubt this is a good idea, because the principles at stake (see the U of M policy for example) are not easily codified. The current system of public debate and controversy surrounding claimed breaches of academic freedom is preferable to legislation.
Of course both parties dodged the biggest issue: deregulating student fees. But in an election, I would not expect otherwise.