The curse of the 1970s struck twice yesterday. In talking to The Australian, Kevin Rudd again indulged his nostalgia for Whitlamesque free education, while stopping short of promising to bring it back:
the Opposition Leader says he also feels uneasy that young Australians do not have access to free tertiary education, which he received in the 1970s under Gough Whitlam’s reforms.
But ….Mr Rudd said the need for economic responsibility precluded a return to free education.
Instead, he promised to ease the burden of the Labor-introduced Higher Education Contribution Scheme, which he said was out of control and prevented children from working-class families from going to university.
But as readers of this blog know, that idea has been persistently discredited. Last year there was the Cardak and Ryan paper that showed for their sample (of young people) that nothing mattered except Year 12 results. The cruder postcode indicator used by DEST also shows that the proportion of low SES enrolments has been flat since statistics started being collected in the early 1990s, despite two significant price increases since (and the absolute number is well up).
In the SMH, students are complaining that:
universities are increasingly charging students for costs they used to cover, students say.
Universities should bear the cost of material necessary to pass each course, said the president of the National Union of Students, Michael Nguyen.
“A lot of the cost is now being put onto students and that seems unreasonable.”
Naturally we should be sceptical of claims about ‘trends’. A comparison of student finance surveys carried out by the AVCC in 2000 and 2006 suggests that most of the increase in total costs is due to computers rather than specific university charges. But the need to have up-front charges reflects the consequences of the price control that Michael Nguyen (and Natasha Stott Despoja, also quoted in the article) support. Textbooks, field trips, etc really should be bundled into the tuition fee and deferred through HECS-HELP. But when tuition charges are based on numbers picked out of the air in Canberra, universities understandably prefer to pass on what costs they can rather than make cuts elsewhere to balance their books.