How ‘public’ should public universities be?

There has been debate about the University of Melbourne’s response to a sex-segregated Islamic event held on campus. But it was an unusual debate, in which the radical feminist Sheila Jeffreys and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott were on much the same side.

U of M VC Glyn Davis pointed this morning to the tensions between gender equality and freedom of association raised by this case.

Some commenters on my Facebook page argued that as a ‘public’ university made a difference to how we should weigh up the conflicting considerations – that even if we should tolerate sex segregation in society generally, it should not happen at the ‘public’ University of Melbourne:

This is, however, a publicly funded university and I assume it’s more then likely that the venue was provided at lower/no cost then a private space; effectively meaning the event was subsidised by the taxpayer. For the sake of reputation of the institution, as well as applying best principles, events that entail gender segregation should be clearly not allowed on campus.

The likes of Glyn Davis must remember that they are public servants.

Most universities in Australia are more akin to government departments than private enterprises, they are established by legislation that allows for extensive control over the way they conduct themselves.

‘Public university’ is not a legal concept. The University of Melbourne’s legislation rather pointedly refers to it as ‘public spirited’ rather than public. University staff are not employed under public service legislation, and the governmnent of the day has no say in academic or professional staff appointments.

In practice, the term ‘public university is used to describe the universities listed in Table A of the Higher Education Support Act 2003. But it is not a term that appears in the legislation.

Table A universities do have greater access to public funds than private higher education providers. Most (though not all – Australian Catholic University is the exception) are subject to some public sector requirements in their own state, perhaps most significantly administrative law obligations such as freedom of information.

But I would generally defend the ‘public spirited’ rather than ‘public’ formulation in the U of M Act. There are good small-c constitutional reasons for thinking that universities should be substantially autonomous of government, places of independent thought and speech. Governments have historically tended to accept that view. Though state governments appoint university or council senate members, they only appoint a minority. State governments especially have taken a laissez-faire approach to academic matters.

To me, public funding should be seen as transaction. Governments are entitled to get what they pay for (such as a number of student places), but this should not give them broader rights over the institution. That some taxpayer money might have been used in building the lecture theatre where the Islamic event was held does not give government any on-going veto power over how the theatre should be used.

None of this means that universities should be immune from criticism. But to me the fact that the U of M was set up by a Victorian government statute, or that it receives Commonwealth funding, does not add anything to the case for preventing sex-segregated events on campus.

Should unis voluntarily cap student numbers?

From my perspective, the demand-driven funding system is Labor’s main higher education achievement (it’s described at pages 56-58 of this report). Over time, I expect it will drive a more efficient allocation of student places and through creating competition improve teaching and student services. Already we can see that a student’s chances of getting an offer in their first-preference field of study has improved in most disciplines:

offer rates
Source: DIISRTE. The figure shows offers in each field of study as a % of all first-preference applications for that field of study.

But uncapping the number of Commonwealth-supported students is costing a lot of money, a factor in recent higher education cuts. An article in yesterday’s AFR reveals that the universities want a de facto re-introduction of caps – not through changing the higher education funding legislation but through universities agreeing to constrain student numbers.

This would be a backwards step. The fear of losing students to competitors is a key driver of responsiveness to students, and a cartel-like restriction on places would be nearly as bad as the old regulated control.

Should higher education courses be tax deductible?

The universities are calling for tuition fees to be exempt from the $2,000 maximum tax deduction for self-education.

The low tax deduction plus the more easily-defensible closing off of the voluntary HELP repayment bonus could have major effects on some students.

For a presentation I was doing at Swinburne today I prepared an example using a Swinburne Graduate Certificate of Engineering, a course marketed as professional development and therefore likely to have sufficient link to the student’s current employment to be deductible.

I assumed that the student was currently earning $75,000 a year, giving them a tax rate of 32.5% plus the 1.5% Medicare levy. I assumed they would take out a FEE-HELP loan and then repay it to claim the 5% bonus for voluntary repayments. As figure 1 shows, the two measures substantially reduce the effective cost of the course to the student.

Figure 1: Effective cost of course under current arrangements
swin 1

As figure 2 shows, with just a $2,000 tax deduction and abolition of the repayment bonus the effective cost of the course to the student increases by more than 50%, from $6,600 to $10,100.

Figure 2: Effective cost of course under proposed arrangements
swin 2

There are interesting conceptual issues here. The tax system is already biased against human capital investment, as students cannot claim a tax deduction for their investment in their future salaried earning power, though they could if they bought a range of physical assets to produce trading profits.

For undergraduates, arguably the public subsidy and the HELP loan scheme removes any bias against human capital investment. Most undergraduates cannot get easy access to other forms of capital. But in the largely full-fee postgraduate market many students would have alternative investments for the available cash.

There are complications in the argument. It is not always easy to distinguish ‘consumption’ and ‘investment’ higher education. It doesn’t seem quite right that with tax deductions the effective cost of course is much higher for someone on a 15% marginal tax rate than someone on a 45% tax rate. In a book I wrote a decade ago, I thought that maybe flat-rate subsidies were less distortionary than tax deductions.

I’m still not entirely sure how to deal with this issue. But we should watch enrolments in postgraduate courses very carefully.

Uni VCs should take some blame for consequences of latest cuts

Well so much for the Universities Australia campaign for increased public funding of higher education, with another half-page ad in today’s Weekend Australian. The government has announced a new wave of higher education spending cuts.

As usual with these weekend announcements there is not much detail available, and not all the numbers make sense to me on current information. For universities, the main impact will come from ‘efficiency dividends’ of 2% in 2014 and 1.25% in 2015. This will be the first cut to nominal per undergraduate student funding since the Dawkins reforms 20 years ago. [Mookster makes the point below that after indexation there will not be a year-on-year reduction, though I am anticipating that there will be a reduction to Commonwealth contribution amounts in the Act.]

Reducing public funding to higher education is not in itself problematic. But arbitrary changes to the prices universities receive for reasons which have nothing to do with higher education (funding Gonski is the claimed reason in this case) are not easily justifiable. In a more market-based system, we could see whether students would rather put up with cuts or pay more to maintain current services.

This outcomes highlights the political failure of the Universities Australia process that led to their current policy document. By maintaining an exclusive focus on public funding rather than building a political case for more fee deregulation they were always taking a big risk. The idea that a $5 million university advertising campaign could alter the political calculation that there are more votes in schools and health was always pretty fanciful. And so it has again proved to be, even sooner than I thought.

The reality here is that there are vice-chancellors who would rather undermine the services they can provide than concede an ideological point about student charges. They should take some of the blame for the problems these cuts will cause.