In The Australian yesterday Australian Catholic University VC Greg Craven argued against deregulation of student contribution amounts.
I’ll leave his equity and participation arguments for another day. But part of Craven’s objection is that he thinks the Group of Eight universities will be able to charge more than other unis, and he doesn’t like that idea.
Craven’s main argument seems to be that though Group of Eight universities argue for more funding on the basis of teaching quality, there is no guarantee that additional fee revenue will in fact be spent on teaching. Instead, Group of Eight unis will charge more because of their historical prestige and spend some of the money on other things, especially research.
Fees charged to international students certainly suggest that there is sandstone premium. I did a quick comparison of 2010 international fees in five sandstones (UQ, USyd, UMelb, UAd, UWA) and seven lower-prestige institutions (Victoria Uni, UWS, USA, ECU, Canberra, ACU). The sandstone premium ranged from 10% in education to nearly 80% in commerce/business courses.
I’m prepared to believe that on average Group of Eight universities do put more resources into each student. But I’m not so sure I believe that it is typically 40% plus more than other unis, as these figures suggest. So it looks like there is a prestige component in the fee.
The way I see it, there is prestige attached to these degrees that means their market value is well above their cost of delivery. The question is who benefits from it. At the moment, domestic students with Commonnwealth-supported places are getting that prestige for free. Under fee deregulation, the sandstone universities would capture more of the value via fees and spend it at least partly on research.
Is that a problem? Though the money is not being spent directly on students, what they are buying is the university’s reputation, which is in turn substantially based on their research. It’s similar to buying designer brands, where part of your money is buying the marketing that makes your purchase fashionable. The difference is that in the university case some of research funded through buying prestige might lead to public benefits. It’s status seeking with a positive spin-off.
Except of course for VCs of other universities. There is only a limited amount of education prestige, and the more the sandstones have the less there is for the other universities. They hate that. They hate it so much that they would rather take on the financial risks to their own institutions from fee regulation than see their status rivals get richer.
Disclosure for non-regular readers: I work part-time for a Group of Eight university.