AUSTRALIA, along with most other western nations, has experienced a revolution in tertiary education in recent decades.
We have gone from a situation where a tertiary education was a privilege – and one restricted largely to those whose families could afford it – to viewing a university education as almost a right for everyone interested in making the effort.
In the broadest sense, this is a good thing: the wholesale shift in the Australian economy from manufacturing to the so-called knowledge economy is predicated on a higher standard of education for as many people as possible.
But the dramatic increase in the size and complexity of the Australian higher education sector has not been without its financial cost, both in the amount of money the federal government allocates to universities, and in the size of a student loan pool that is getting steadily bigger as more and more students defer the cost of their education.
In announcing this week’s program of federal funding cuts, Higher Education Minister Simon Birmingham put the total of outstanding student loans at $52 billion – or three times the level of borrowing in 2009.
In simple terms, the package cuts university funding by 2.5 per cent, saving the government $2.8 billion over four years, while introducing a set of staggered fee increases that are designed to lift a student’s share of the cost of a degree from 42 per cent to 46 per cent.
To reduce the amount outstanding in student loans, the government is proposing a modest tightening of the income-based repayment schedules.
For the established “sandstone” universities, the government’s proposals are unlikely to make too much difference. They will be opposed, but they are nowhere near as draconian as what the Coalition had planned under Tony Abbott.
But the impact may well be more significant at Charles Sturt University and at other regional universities, where the bulk of its domestic students come from far less privileged backgrounds.
Tertiary institutions urge students to see the cost of their education as an investment in their future.
But students paying tens of thousands of dollars for a degree – whether the cost is deferred or not – have an expectation of quality learning, putting universities across the country under increasing pressure to ensure that their teaching houses are in order.