The Topsy-Turvy World of Higher Education Politics

Article excerpt

ON politics it is normally easy to guess what a group might think. Just look at their interests, add a bit of public interest gloss, and you have their policies.

There is one area in which this formula won't work. In higher education we have the highly unusual situation of all the major interest groups, apart from the newly-formed Group of Eight, regularly opposing policies that would advance their members' interests.

Take, for example, the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee, which represents all but one of Australia's Vice-Chancellors.

The AVCC complains continually that the universities are short of money. Their `Ten Point Plan for Australian Universities', issued during the 1998 election campaign, was really a one-point plan with ten variations. The one point was, of course, that they needed more money.

Fast forward to October 1999 and the leak of Federal Education Minister Dr David Kemp's reform plan for Australian higher education, a plan that could have ended the financial problems of Australian universities.

For the AVCC's members, Dr Kemp's proposal promised full subsidies for the partly subsidized students they have now, and the lifting of government-imposed limits on subsidized student numbers. All Australian fee-paying students, and not just those occupying subsidized places, would have been entitled to pay for their education with an incomecontingent loan, opening up a new market of students prepared to pay full-fees, but unable to provide the money up-front.

On top of this, all universities would have been able to charge fees for their undergraduate courses, again with income-contingent loans available to students. Even if they had charged their full-time undergraduate students a modest $1,000 extra each per year, this would have amounted to around $400 million, an increase of 8 per cent on what the Government pays universities now.

You might think that the AVCC would respond enthusiastically to a proposal which would alleviate their members' financial problems, but that would be to apply the normal logic of interest groups.

What did the AVCC do? Its press release welcomed the proposal's acknowledgment of the scale of the sector's problems. It said that there were a number of things worthy of further consideration, though did not specify any. And it devoted the vast bulk of its public comment to attacking the one part of the proposal that was probably a bad idea, the charging of variable commercial rates of interest on student loans.

Any sensible interest group would have concentrated on supporting the things that were good for them, rather than almost ignoring them as being just `worthy of further consideration'.

This was not just an aberration by a misguided AVCC Secretariat. Of the 32 Vice-Chancellors or their representatives that The Australian newspaper contacted after the leak, 15 said that they were against deregulating fees, and only seven were in favour, the rest giving a qualified response.

The principal union in higher edu. cation, the National Tertiary Education Union, did not bother with the AVCC's caution. It unequivocally condemned the reform proposals.

Yet again, we have an organization at odds with the financial interests of its members. The NTEU believes that university staff are underpaid, and indeed local academic salaries are falling behind those of their counterparts overseas and other Australian professionals.

The NTEU's solution is for the taxpayer to fund academic salary increases. This is a doomed strategy. Per student funding has declined in all but three years since 1983. With both major political parties committed to fiscal responsibility, there is no chance of funding commensurate with pay demands. Only students have a direct interest in financing education, and deregulation is the only way to achieve large-scale student investment. Yet the NTEU remains implacably opposed to the policies that could improve the lot of its members. …