In yesterday’s Age, Sarah Blackman, who already has university degrees in arts and education, is reported as complaining that she will have to pay full fees for an RMIT course on writing and editing (this one, I think). This makes it about ten times more expensive than a subsidised place.
The requirement to pay full fees is, as I understand, part of the Victorian government’s reforms to their vocational education system. They have lifted quantity constraints on places available to students taking initial or upgraded qualifications, but are not subsidising people taking lower qualifications than those they have already.
Higher education also has restraints on subsidies. Sometimes these relate, like Victoria, to the student: limits on the number of years of subsidy. Sometimes it relates to the course, with most postgraduate coursework degrees being offered on a full-fee basis only.
In principle, these seem like fair ways to ration limited resources. In Victoria, the savings from not subsidising a would-be triple-dipper like Ms Blackman are being redirected to people who have had far fewer opportunities. People with postgraduate qualifications have typically already enjoyed significant subsidy and are in a better position to finance further study.
However, the Gillard reforms would abolish the 7-year limit on receiving government higher education subsidy. There is a legitimate argument that the bureaucratic cost of administering the limit exceeded its benefits. It requires the government to eventually keep track of the consumed subsidised study time of millions of current and former students. It requires higher education providers to continually check on entitlements. It may well be cheaper to allow a relatively small number of ‘perpetual students’ to continue drawing subsidies.
Nevertheless, the principle of limiting subsidy is sound and if there was a more efficient way of rationing spending then we should do it. I think there is. This is to cap the HECS-HELP loans scheme, so that a student could borrow so much but no more (or combine HECS-HELP into the existing FEE-HELP scheme, which is already capped). Since the outstanding HELP debt needs to be recorded anyway, this uses existing information for a dual purpose. It also limits the costs associated with HELP itself.