For this section the Institute invites comments from two differing policy viewpoints. In this edition of farm institute insights, Kim Carr and Christopher Pyne examine the advantages and disadvantages of proposed changes to university fees.

 

Exploring the advantages and disadvantages of proposed changes to university fees

Senator the Hon Kim Carr

Shadow Minister for Higher Education

Since the Abbott Government announced its Budget plan to cut higher-education funding and deregulate fees, Australia’s universities have been engaged in two activities that sit uncomfortably together. They have been calculating how much fees will have to rise to make up for cuts in Commonwealth teaching grants that also fund research, and they have been trying to reassure students about the prospect of crippling debt. The former exercise has undermined the latter.

With regard to agriculture faculties, the clearest indication has come from the vice-chancellor of Charles Sturt University (CSU), Professor Andrew Vann, who said:

For CSU we calculate this [the funding cut] to be an average of 23.5 per cent across the board. Some areas would need to rise substantially. Science fees would need to be increased by 62 per cent, Agriculture by 48 per cent…

Not all vice-chancellors have been as forthright, but there is no reason to think that CSU’s prediction of a hefty 48 per cent rise is wildly atypical. Across the university sector the cuts in Commonwealth grants for teaching will be 20%, close to Professor Vann’s calculation, and the peak body Universities Australia has estimated that the cost of agriculture degrees will rise by 43%.

In the closely related discipline of veterinary science, whose graduates are crucial to maintaining strong, disease-free agricultural industries, modelling by the Australian Veterinary Association estimates that repayments for a veterinary degree could nearly double, to $270,000, and take graduates from 37 to 45 years to pay off, compared with 9 to 17 years at present.

The difficulties agriculture and veterinary science faculties already face in attracting students will be exacerbated by the combined effect of reduced funding, uncapped fees and changes to student loans that will substantially increase the debt burden for graduates.

Enrolments in agriculture courses have fallen over the past decade. The Australian Council of Deans of Agriculture reports that last year there were only 800 graduates to fill more than 4000 job vacancies. Established universities in the capital cities have been losing enthusiasm for agriculture courses because of the high cost and low enrolments, and some of these institutions have folded their agriculture faculties into broader life sciences faculties.

Until now that has provided an opportunity for smaller, regional universities to offer courses such as agriculture that are directly beneficial to the regions they serve, and which attract local students. However that has depended on maintaining the present funding arrangements, because regional universities still struggle to compete with the lure of their metropolitan counterparts.

In Christopher Pyne’s brave new world, however, funding will be cut and universities will have to raise fees to make up the shortfall, which will deter many prospective students. The Minister’s suggestion that smaller universities might cut fees to become more competitive is a fantasy, and the changes will hit regional universities and their agriculture faculties hardest.

Most bizarrely of all, the Abbott Government is doing this while negotiating trade agreements that emphasise Australia’s strengths as an agricultural producer. Just when agriculture graduates will be needed most, Mr Pyne is doing his best to ensure that there will be even fewer of them. He is like the failed agricultural economist who thought we no longer need cows because we have milk.

Senator the Hon Kim Carr is Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Industry, and Shadow Minister assisting the Leader for Science. During the previous Federal Labor Government he served as Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, and Minister for Higher Education. He has been a Senator for Victoria since 1993 and a member of the ALP National Executive since 1994. 

 

How higher education reform will benefit regional communities and students

Hon Christopher Pyne MP

Minister for Education, Leader of the House, Member for Sturt

Australia’s strong agricultural heritage is something in which we can all be proud. Generations of Australians have grown up on farms, growing the produce and raising the livestock that keep our rural exports strong and put food on our tables every day.

Agriculture supports hundreds of thousands of Australian jobs and makes a significant contribution to Australia’s economy. In fact, a number of our agricultural commodities ranked in Australia’s top 25 exports in 2013, including wheat and beef ranking in the top 10[1].

As Minister for Education, I am passionate about expanding education opportunities for people, whether living in the city or the bush. Australian university graduates on average earn up to 75% more than those who do not go on to higher education after secondary school.  Over their lifetime, graduates may earn around a million dollars more than if they had not gone to university.

I recently visited seven universities in regional Australia to listen to the concerns of people in regional and rural areas about higher education, and discuss how the Federal Government’s higher education plan introduced in this year’s Budget will particularly benefit regional students and their communities.

Regional and rural students and their communities are among the big winners from our higher education plan, as more students will be able to access courses more appropriate to the needs of farmers and employers in the agriculture sector.

Our plan expands opportunities for apprentices and non traditional students, by providing $20,000 HECS style loans so that apprentices can be supported in meeting everyday costs through our new Trade Support Loans. Like university students, they won’t be required to repay their loan until they are earning a decent income.

Our plan will expand access to higher education opportunities to all Australians. For the first time ever, financial support will be available to all students in all higher education institutions, be they universities, colleges or TAFEs, and whether in the cities or the bush.

Our plan will create opportunities for 80,000 additional students each year by 2018 – including some 48,000 in diploma, advanced diploma and associate degree courses, and 35,000 in bachelor courses. These sub-bachelor courses mean students can undertake further education that can be used outright or as a stepping stone towards a university degree.

Our plan will strengthen the current Higher Education Loan Programme (also known as HECS) under which no Australian student need pay a cent up front. This means that the Government will continue to assist students with the costs of their education and no one will need to repay anything until they earn over $50,000 a year. We will also remove the unfair 20% loan fee for fee paying and VET students accessing FEE HELP and VET FEE HELP.

Freeing universities to set their own fees will encourage competition, leading to higher quality courses and more competitive pricing. Regional universities will compete with metropolitan universities on both the price and value of their courses, as well as on the cost of living and lifestyle. These institutions have the potential to not only excel but may see in increase in student enrolment. When universities and colleges compete for students, students win.

Not only will our higher education plan provide a boost to regional economies by ensuring there are more skilled workers, but regional education institutions themselves will be able to grow, employ more people and invest back into their local communities. Universities and TAFEs are free to work together and tailor their education pathways so that they offer the skills and knowledge that local employers and communities are looking for.

For too long, people living in the bush have had limited choice in high quality education. This is an exciting time as we implement profound and necessary reform in higher education.

More information on the Australian Government’s higher education reform package can be found at www.education.gov.au.

1. www.dfat.gov.au/publications/tgs/index.html

Christopher Pyne was elected to the House of Representatives for the seat of Sturt in 1993.
 Christopher is the Minister for Education and Leader of the House of Representatives.

In his time in Parliament he has been Shadow Minister for Education, Manager of Opposition Business in the House of Representatives, Shadow Minister for Justice, Minister for Ageing, Assistant Minister and Parliamentary Secretary for Health and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Family and Community Services.

Before entering Parliament, Christopher practised as a solicitor. Christopher is married to Carolyn and is the father of Eleanor, Barnaby, Felix and Aurelia.

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Images: University of Fraser Valley Agriculture