The hardline voluntary student union option, and other things from the latest release of Cabinet papers

As in 2019, this year’s 1 January release of old Cabinet papers reveals new details about the Coalition’s internal debates about higher education. However, this time I am less of a disinterested observer, as the 1998 and 1999 papers made public today include the time when I was higher education adviser to the then education minister, Dr David Kemp.

There are several topics discussed – the government’s response to the West review of higher education, voluntary student unionism, and the 1999-2000 Budget. For me the common thread, apart from the portfolio area, is Dr Kemp’s efforts to maintain, despite competing fiscal and political pressures,  the policy and political conditions needed for an intellectually coherent higher education policy. He was headed to a major higher education reform Cabinet submission later in 1999 (not in this official release, but it was leaked twenty years ago).

When the Howard government came to office in 1996 its first priority was bringing the Budget back into balance. In higher education, this led to cuts to per student subsidies in higher education with offsetting increases in HECS charges, cuts to student places, and a reduced income threshold for repaying HECS debt.

As I have observed before, often the Coalition ends up with not so much a higher education policy as a fiscal policy with implications for higher education. But in 1996 they knew that quickly-made budget-driven decisions were not the basis of long-term policy, and commissioned a broader examination of higher education policy, which turned into the West review. (One of my tasks as a ministerial adviser was liaising with its chair, Roderick West, a retired school headmaster with no public policy experience. The technocrats were running rings around him, but you have to admire someone who can incorporate quotations from ancient Greeks and Romans into an Australian government policy report, as he did in his chairman’s foreword.)

The final report of the West review proposed an evolutionary shift from the then system, in which the Commonwealth set student charges and the number of student places, to one in which fees and the distribution of student places were more market set. But its release in April 1998 was not good timing, as the prime minister was already thinking about an election later that year, in which he would not want higher education to be an issue. The Cabinet submission essentially aims to minimise higher education as a negative for the government, while not ruling out policies that the government may want to adopt later. The subsequent media release indicates a win for the minister.

The minister also had a win in the 1999-2000 Budget, in which the Department of Finance had yet again bid for a real interest rate to be imposed on HECS debt. Cabinet decided against that. But Cabinet agreed that, in light of the number of students who did not repay their HECS debts, a minimum upfront payment be considered. There is nothing further about it in the accompanying released papers and I have no recollection of it.

On voluntary student unionism (VSU) the released documents show that Cabinet went for a more radical version than Kemp proposed. Liberal students had long lobbied for abolition of compulsory university charges for non-academic services, mostly as a way of striking at their left-wing campus enemies.  The campus left’s Achilles heel (if I can do a Rod West) was its dependence on compulsorily-acquired cash. If students could choose whether to fund student politics most would not.

But the problem was that Kemp’s goal of a less regulated university sector, where universities could offer different types of education at fees they set in the market, wasn’t consistent with the added regulation of VSU. The Cabinet submission pointed out this tension. Kemp’s preference was to prevent universities from deeming students as members of any association or charging any membership fee, but still allow charges for general student services. But Cabinet went instead for prohibiting any compulsory fee for non-educational services. The subsequent legislation did not get through the Parliament, although in 2005 a similar bill was successful.

The higher education cabinet submissions of 1998 and the first part of 1999 did not have immediate policy consequences. But the same ideas keep circulating, and except for the upfront charge they all reappeared at a later time, and a couple – VSU and the demand driven funding elements of the West review – were, for a while, government policy.




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