While Liberal students search out biased academics, it is good to see that Young Labor is joining NUS in pursuing one of the big problems in higher education, price control.
As readers may recall, NUS is supporting an increase in the maximum student contribution amount so that amenities fees can be reintroduced. In the SMH this morning, Young Labor President Sam Crosby has an op-ed calling for HECS to cover textbook expenses.
Both the NUS and Young Labor proposals are typical of the ad hocery that plagues policymaking in higher education. Endless minor changes to the existing system aimed at particular problems add to complexity without fixing the underlying structural flaws. But they are at least recognising that price control creates problems and calling for change, albeit change that does not go nearly far enough.
What’s really going on is this. For political reasons, the maximum student contribution amount is set too low. As this Access Economics report on six universities (pdf) found last year, these universities are already losing money on Commonwealth-supported students in half of the 22 disciplines examined. This means that there is no scope for bundling – whether that is non-academic services or textbooks and other study aids.
What level of bundling should go on will vary from course to course and from university to university. This is why it is absurd to set the same prices for every discipline at every university regardless of differences between them, as happens now. But if certain textbooks or other items are in practice essential for students to have, there is logic in the universities buying them in bulk and distributing them to students, with the cost included in the overall fee, which can be deferred like the existing student contribution amount.
Neither NUS nor Young Labor have fully thought through the deregulatory implications of their position. But at least they setting out down a path that could lead to sensible policy.