Universities don't buy Coalition's education reform claims

DESPITE claims regional universities will not suffer under the Abbott Government's higher education reforms, the regional universities sector remains resolute in its call for a $100 million package to help adjust to the deregulated market.

And the sector could yet get support from key Senate crossbenchers for such a package, the chairman of the Regional Universities Network has told APN.

A regulatory impact statement on the government's reforms released late last week claimed that due to higher enrolments from Labor's demand-driven system reforms and other factors, regional universities would not be worse off under the free market.

But RUN chairman and Southern Cross University vice-chancellor Professor Peter Lee said he did not "buy into any of those statements", instead arguing the government's policy report failed to take into account the majority of mature-aged students in regional areas.

"We had called for years for the demand-driven system, but to me, since those reforms, we saw the growth, and we've now reached the end of that phase," Prof Lee said.

"The demand has been met, and any real growth in the regions will have to come from raising the aspirations of students - too many high school students just don't aspire to study at regional universities.

"That's the real challenge we need to address, and it could take a decade to try to raise these aspirations."

Prof Lee, who on Tuesday will give evidence to a Senate committee examining the government's reforms, said if regional universities were to survive a "20% cut to Commonwealth funding", laid out in the May budget, then the market needed to be deregulated.

But he said even with the deregulation, regional universities operated in "thin markets", with not enough students, and specialisation and filling niche study interests would not be enough to keep regionals operating.

"I think we've really got to ensure regional universities have an adjustment package - the Group of Eight and the peak body Universities Australia have both backed this," he said.

"And I've spoken to numerous Senate crossbenchers and the Opposition about an assistance package, and so that's what I'm arguing for."

Prof Lee said while he could not go into detail about private meetings with Senate crossbenchers, he hoped the reforms could be amended in the upper house to ensure such a package would be delivered for regional universities.

RUN includes Southern Cross University, University of the Sunshine Coast, University of Southern Queensland and Central Queensland University among the six members. 

WHAT THE REFORMS WILL CHANGE:

  • Deregulate the higher education fee market and un-cap fee limits
  • Remove upfront discounts, voluntary repayment bonuses, and lifetime limits on HECS-HELP and FEE-HELP debts
  • Replace CPI increases on university fees with the higher government 10-year bond rate
  • Provide demand-driven funding to diploma, advanced diploma and associate degrees

WITH more than 160 submissions from academics, teachers, students and parents, the Senate committee examining the Abbott Government's higher education reforms will embark on a week of public hearings on Tuesday.

The series of hearings will start in Brisbane, with one day in the Sunshine state, before heading to Canberra for two days of hearings and a final hearing in Melbourne this week.

The committee has received some 163 submissions from private education providers, TAFE and VET providers, the nation's key universities lobby groups, parents and students themselves.

Among the key groups to spell out their concerns and hopes for the wide-ranging reforms and deregulation of the university fee market on Tuesday will be the Regional Universities Network, the Council of Private Higher Education and Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency.

The former head of Universities Australia and vice-chancellor of James Cook University Dr Sandra Harding, as well as higher education expert Professor Peter Shergold are also expected to meet with the committee on Tuesday.

The series of hearings this week will be one of the final hurdles before the Senate committee examines the submissions and reports to parliament its findings by the end of October.

But the reforms will still face the final hurdle of the Senate, where Labor and The Greens have already said they are opposed to the changes, and negotiations are yet to begin with the key crossbenchers. - APN NEWSDESK



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