Op Ed: New Vision for higher education

26 May 2014 Article

Christopher Pyne's vision for higher education

Op Ed originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 26 May 2014. Available online: http://www.smh.com.au/comment/christopher-pynes-vision-for-higher-education-20140525-zrniw.html
With images of protesters – who were strangely quiet for the past six years despite massive cuts to education by the previous government – splashed across the newspapers, many people must be wondering what all the fuss is about.

The Abbott government has a host of new initiatives in education. We are planning to expand opportunities for more people to attend university and we are planning to extend access, particularly for disadvantaged and regional students. Whether through HECS-backed diplomas and pathway courses, or increased support for young people wanting to take up a trade, this government is making it easier to learn than ever.

Our plan massively expands opportunities for Australian apprentices and non-traditional students, ensuring apprentices have access to HECS-style loans of up to $20,000 for everyday costs through new Trade Support Loans. They won’t need to repay a dollar until they earn a decent living, just like university students.

Our plan provides that vocational education and training students – also not at university – will be able to borrow for course fees. They will no longer have to pay an unfair 20 per cent fee that is charged to them but not to undergraduates in public universities.

Under this federal government and for the first time there will be support for all students studying for higher education diplomas, advanced diplomas and associate degrees, not just those in public universities. Students can go to a public or private university, or a so-called “non-university provider” such as the higher education section of a TAFE or a private college approved to offer university level courses. This is a massive expansion from the current system, which concentrates support on undergraduate students in public universities.

Our plan supports more than 80,000 additional students each year through these new measures. If that is not expanding choice, it is hard to imagine what would satisfy those calling for greater access to tertiary education.

Diploma students will be the big winners. Diplomas, apart from being qualifications in themselves, are great for students who are not fully prepared for university study but who ultimately want to get into a university from somewhere other than after completing high school. This could be a mature-age student wanting to retrain to move to a better job, or a bright student who missed out in year 11 or 12 for various reasons. Students who enter university with a diploma typically do better than many less-prepared students who go from school straight to university – too many of whom drop out. This massive expansion of support for diplomas should help to reduce that drop-out rate in our universities.

Traditional university students, meanwhile, remain protected. The government will continue to support all 750,000 or so full-time and part-time Australian students studying for a regular bachelor degree by offering what we believe is the world’s most generous loans scheme. Not a cent of university study needs to be paid for by Australian students upfront. Students borrow their share of the cost of their education through the Higher Education Loan Program (otherwise known as HECS). They don’t start repaying until they earn over $50,000 a year. It’s the best loan deal a student will ever get, especially given the interest rate is protected – it just matches the government’s cost of borrowing.
There’s an ever bigger win for university students.

Freeing universities to set their own fees, rather than having them dictated by government, will encourage competition between higher education institutions – and that means better courses, better teaching and more competitive course pricing. It will result in a greater focus on students than ever before in Australia.

Students from low socio-economic groups and regional areas will have more opportunity than ever before. New Commonwealth scholarships will be available to support those students. Higher education institutions will be required to spend $1 in every $5 of additional revenue they get from fee deregulation on Commonwealth scholarships and other forms of support for those from low socio-economic backgrounds and regional areas.

This massive expansion of opportunity for Australians responds in part to rapid growth over recent years in the number of university students, which has meant a growing cost to taxpayers – an additional $7.6 billion over five years.

Any debate about this package is a good thing. It brings out the fact that university students, on average, pay just more than 40 per cent of the cost of their education, and the taxpayer pays the rest. It acknowledges that university graduates benefit from a significant personal advantage, earning about 75 per cent more than non-graduates – or about $1 million more over their lifetimes. It reminds us that 60 per cent of adult Australians who will never hold a degree are subsidising the other 40 per cent.
It goes without saying that people who benefit so greatly from their university education should be making a reasonable contribution to the cost of it.

We need our university graduates. They keep our economy strong, viable and able in the new world economy – but only if education quality is high and our university system works. As Universities Australia itself has highlighted through its new advertising campaign, we must not be left behind. We must set our higher education providers free –to compete, grow and be excellent. We can create the best higher education system in the world.
It's a win for students, a win for education and a win for Australia.

Christopher Pyne is the federal Minister for Education.