With the election just around the corner, political parties have shown an unprecedented interest in higher education. That interest, of course, is more about securing the votes of students and their relatives than about a genuine commitment either to students or to the future of our universities.
The fact is that universities have seen the unit funding from Government reduced by 20-30%, in real terms, in the last 10 years. Yes, universities can become more efficient - we have and will. But if we teach more and research more, it does cost more.
Universities are already under severe pressure through persistent under-funding. If they are to be the engine room of economic and social development in the future, then they need urgent attention. Our motivation should be about the development of our young citizens and of the country, whose future demands educated people and the creation of new knowledge.
I accept that there is a personal benefit in education, but there is also an enormous and vital public benefit. With some HECS students now paying up to 85% of their course costs and as much as $8000 a year in fees, we have surely gone too far. This can be confirmed by a simple comparison with other countries. Just stabilising fees, whether at the 2004 level (as Labor would have it) or the levels proposed by the Government for 2005, is simply not sufficient. That is why many universities have been forced to make the difficult decision to increase HECS fees.
In my ideal world, fees would be zero. However, I am pragmatic enough to accept that this is neither likely nor perhaps even possible. Surely, though, one of the major parties could at least have a policy of minimising student fees by making a commitment to reduce them over time.
Currently, students who can either find or borrow the money can enrol as full fee students; though under Labor, this would not be permitted. Labor has instead offered 20,000 new university places (presumably at the same unit cost) and claims this will meet demand. If their confident prediction of demand is correct, then we don't need a quota. An open-entry, fully-indexed system, in which fees are minimised and students are helped with the costs of daily living, will help us build the future we envisage. Is it not time we had some mechanism to support our students and have some guarantee of equity of access so that talent is fully expressed, not wasted?
Our politicians set the agenda and establish the priorities so they can't be let off the hook. We need new knowledge to feed our economy and our development, and educated people able to contribute fully to society. If these issues are not a priority, then we really are in trouble. As a country, we will get what we pay for, not necessarily what we deserve. The very least the electorate deserves is a choice where we are not arguing about fine shades of grey, but about vision and the future.
PROFESSOR JAMES A. McWHA
This is an edited version of an opinion piece that appeared in The Australian Financial Review