For some reason, Julia Gillard let junior minister Kate Ellis run with student amenities policy, cutting across Gillard’s own broader policy review under Denise Bradley.
Last week Ellis introduced complex legislation to regulate and finance student amenities, when for much of Australia prior to 2006 it had operated without any government regulation at all. Now she has released guidelines that provide more detail on how the legislation would operate.
Student unions are unhappy that the guidelines don’t force universities to give them money. But that they are not forced to do so is perhaps the only thing that can be said in favour of the guidelines.
The guidelines do require higher education institutions receiving tuition subsidies to provide democratic opportunities for students to participate in decision-making, and to provide ‘adequate and reasonable support resources and infrastructure’ for elected students to carry out their functions. They also require students to be given access to independent advocacy services for academic matters, for higher education providers to make available information on and access to health services, accommodation services, legal matters, and employment services.
Though the public universities will largely already be compliant with these regulations, they add another unfunded obligation to the Commonwealth tuition subsidy. So while this government endlessly complains of funding cuts under the previous government, the reality is that they have continued with the main cutting mechanism (below indexation grants) and added new unfunded costs, which the Coalition never did (they also imposed excessive regulation, but it was in exchange for a 7.5% increase in Commonwealth funding over 3 years). So on core funding, so far Labor’s record is worse than the Coalition’s.
This legislation and its guidelines also put another nail in the coffin of the Bradley committee’s plan to bring private providers into the system. As my CIS paper argued, few would have been attracted to the low rates per student on offer in any case. But adding extra costs and demanding a significant change in governance will lead them to sensibly tell the government to keep their money and their regulations.
The regulations also show that the one-size-fits-all public education mentality is still dominant in Canberra. All institutions must conform to the same higher education provider as community model. If higher education institutions are communities, democratic representation makes sense; if they are just educational service providers there is no need for them to have democratic institutions or to worry about student health, legal troubles etc etc. These services can be unbundled and become the responsibility of the student.
If the higher education system is to reach the enrolment targets set by Bradley, it seems crazy to entrench a high-cost model of education, in which other electoral and personal services are forcibly bundled in, and if an institution desires the title ‘university’ research costs are also incorporated. But as I have had to explain to incredulous listeners over the years as I have explained the higher education system, in this industry the fact that something is absurd has never been considered a valid objection to it.