Labor’s full-fee phase-out policy shambles, and what to do about it

My criticisms of Labor’s policy of abolishing full-fee undergraduate places at public universities had a good run in The Australian‘s Higher Education Supplement this morning. Amazingly, even though Labor has being saying for 10 years that they will abolish these places, they cannot give basic details about how it will be done. A bit like the Americans invading Iraq, it seems like they have little idea about how they will run the country once they have won the war.

What we have so far is that these places will be phased out beginning in 2009, and that the universities will be compensated to the tune of $300 to $400 million. But as I pointed out to the HES, from a public policy perspective the most important issue is not the compensation (though more on that below), it is what happens to the student places created by the full-fee policy.

According to DEST, in 2006 there were 13,762 full-fee domestic undergraduate students at Australian public universities (the number of effective full-time places would be lower, but they have not published that number yet). That’s about 2.5% of all domestic undergraduate students. Are we supposed to remove 2.5% of the system’s undergraduate capacity? Shrinking the number of places in disciplines with graduate undersupply – there are many full-fee students in medicine, dentistry and veterinary science – doesn’t sound very sensible, and is hardly consistent with Labor’s rhetoric about skills shortages.
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