Freedom and Fees

By Celeste Arenas

Do Universities truly need to be deregulated? Won’t this make it utterly unaffordable for students? Celeste says this would not be the case and would be good for the sector.

When I hear the words “fee deregulation,” I can imagine what comes next. It is usually an arts student from Sydney University who paints the picture of an education factory. They argue that neoliberalism is taking over the world and is now extending its claws into university. We will all become chained to markets and slaves to capitalism, the doomsayers say. This is quite a compelling case; I must admit, even I believed it for a while.

However, the question of equity, beyond slogans and fearmongering reveals a very different picture. It challenges the plethora of student voices who either oppose the government’s policies or are afraid of it. The former are a very vocal and sometimes violent minority. The latter are the majority of students who want universities and government to remain in a complicated relationship. Neither approach understands what a free market university actually is.

There is an intoxicating belief that deregulation will harm the rights of students. It is an often heard maxim of the left that “education is a basic human right” and that it “should be accessible to everyone.” These are all excellent ideals for an educated society. However, they would be better served by looking beyond monetary solutions to wider social problems. Student equity is not diminished when students are liable to pay the full amount of their education.

Until 2004, Britain had a subsidized fee structure that did not see substantial enrolments from students of lower socio – economic background. A degree was not as profitable then as it is now. Between 2004 and 2014, the government decided to deregulate the prices of university to cover the costs of university funding. Many believed this policy would hurt economically disadvantaged students the most. It has not turned out to be true. 70% of university enrolments during these

years came from students with lower socio – economic backgrounds. The relatively higher costs of a degree have not offset its overall return. In consideration of its lifetime benefits, it is understandable that there is an increasing demand for tertiary education amongst less well-off students. Privatization is nothing more than a true reflection of the monetary value of a degree. It does not hinder the entry of students without an alternate sources of income.

There will still be those who say deregulation continues to hurt poor students, even though it doesn’t hurt as much as they’d like to believe. Let’s put this into reverse perspective. Does social mobility increase when students are not charged for tuition fees? The historical answer is no. Whitlam’s free education policy in the 1970s led to almost no changes in accessibility for disadvantaged students. Of the 276, 339 new enrolments in 1975, 80% were made up of students who already came from privileged backgrounds. Whilst a policy may be imbued with good intentions, it is only successful if its leads to positive outcomes. The only good outcome of Whitlam’s policy is the proof that free education does not increase accessibility. Sadly, this fact is largely ignored in the deregulation debate today. This not only distorts the historical facts but ignores the real challenges in education. Ascribing monetary value to a university education is the first step to realizing that money is neither the problem nor the solution to student equity. The greatest factor to determine accessibility amongst all backgrounds is previous school performance. This is where all sides of the debate should be focused, if bridging the socio – economic divide amongst poorer students is their main concern.

When I say “equity,” I refer not only to the welfare of students. I’m also referring to equity in terms of the entire Australian population. This the missing part of the equation when protestors against

deregulation refer to role of government. The monetary benefits of a degree evidently set university students apart from the rest of society. Some students will say that while this is true, federal funds should still be allocated to subsidize tuition fees. They either do not consider, or are unaware of, where government funds come from. Taxes, and increasingly income taxes, are the main sources of revenue for the government. It is this money that turns into the discounted fees for university students, who are essentially living off a million dollar privilege. Nothing spoils true equity than working classes having to subsidize individuals with a profitable degree. Fortunately there has been mounting electoral pressure to cut university funding so as to “get off the backs of the poor.” Indeed, giving money to universities has reduced and continues to reduce for this very reason. Since 1989, public universities have raised their own income to the point where no more than 25% is provided by government funds. Both as a matter of principle and practicality, governments should not be funding tertiary education. A fully privatized university is one step closer towards the government’s ability to attend to more pressing concerns – like lowering the budget deficit.

When the HECS system was introduced, it was an efficient solution to student equity and university funding. Just as there were caps on student fees, HECS began in the knowledge that there would be a limit to student entry. The Gillard government however, dismantled this in 2012. They established

the demand-driven system which allowed unlimited student admission. This was an excellent idea in increasing accessibility, but makes little economic sense when not followed by an increase in tuition fees. In other words, Gillard established the benefits of a free market university without following through on its inevitable cost. Demand must be paid for if it is to be sustained. The NTEU noted that the strain on teaching staff and the lower quality of education would follow Gillard’s proposal. Indeed, this has been the case where the increase in student entry has not supported by the funds to accommodate it. Full deregulation completes the market process under the Gillard government. It is indeed an applauded goal to allow unlimited demand in university. This is what equity is all about. No student who deserves a place should be barred from entering because of a government cap. At the same time, this policy goal cannot be sustained when the demand does not cover the costs of running a university.

Deregulation is the only way to cover university costs when government funds are declining. It is no surprise that Vice Chancellors have championed it for a long time. Many students protest directly against these authorities, claiming they are solely interested in the bottom line of profits. I find this amusing, considering universities would go bankrupt if Chancellors didn’t take profits seriously. One Chancellor however, strikes me as particularly useful in the case for deregulation. Greg Craven may be the head of Australian Catholic University but he considers himself “a pinko academic.” He supports deregulation, not because he supports the Liberal government but because it makes economic sense. Craven points out that if universities cannot set their own prices, vital research will suffer, quality teaching will decline and international competitiveness will go down. This comes from a university that caters for only 20,000 students. Imagine how much more relevant for Macquarie University with 30,000 students and Sydney University with more than 40,000 students locally. Craven makes the case that there is no other way to funnel resources into the university system. Whether you wish for government intervention within education or not, the reality is that it’s declining. The only way for universities to thrive is to deregulate.

A university that creates unbridled economic opportunities for students. A university that does not impinge on its financially disadvantaged. A university that does not punish those who take a different career path. A university that is accessible to all who earn a place. A university whose quality is superb and competitive. This is the free market university – whose prices I am indeed willing to pay.

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