A few notes on the future of higher education policy

Labor went to the 2022 election with few specific policies on higher education, but with general plans for a different style of policymaking. The teal MPs have a few things to say about higher education. If Labor gets a clear House of Representatives majority, however, the opinions of the yet-to-be-determined Senate crossbench will be more important than those of lower-house teals in the passage of higher education legislation.

Additional student places

Labor’s main specific election promise was ‘up to’ 20,000 more student places. As I wrote when the policy was announced, the ‘up to’ is an important caveat, because under Job-ready Graduates the government allocates dollars rather than places. The same number of dollars can convert into lots of places in arts or business courses with low Commonwealth contributions, or relatively few places in courses with high Commonwealth contributions.

Labor’s costings document also indicates that this money for extra places appears to be temporary, starting to decline before the full impact of demand from the ‘Costello baby boom’ cohort is felt. It may also be too little to offset the inflation impact on Commonwealth-supported places. Commonwealth contributions are indexed to CPI, so as contribution values go up universities need to deliver fewer student places to get each $1 million of Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding.

Abolition of the discount for paying student contributions upfront

The costings document also shows that Labor plans to get rid of the 10% discount for paying student contributions up-front. This is a sensible change, but ironically given the weekend’s election results the previously abolished discount was only reinstated because of a proto-teal MP, Rebekha Sharkie, holding a former Liberal seat.

A universities ‘accord’

Much less specifically than these two policies Labor promises a ‘Universities Accord’. Tanya Plibersek, who will presumably be sworn in as education minister in the coming days, outlined this idea at last year’s AFR higher education conference. She said that:

The accord would be a partnership between universities and staff, unions and business, students and parents, and, ideally, Labor and Liberal – that lays out what we expect from our universities.

The aim of an accord would be to build consensus on key policy questions and national priorities in a sober, evidence-based way, without so much of the political cut and thrust. Building that consensus should help university reform stick.

With these goals:

Accessibility. Where there are enough university places to meet the nation’s future skills needs. Where Australians who get the marks and want to study can earn a spot. And where vocational education and universities are cohesive, adaptable, equally valued and supported.
Affordability. Where students aren’t saddled with huge debts to get a university education.
Quality. A high quality university system, centred around the needs of students and workers over a lifetime of learning and work, including those looking to update their qualifications or change careers.
Certainty. A university system that gives students, universities and businesses the certainty to make long-term plans. Student fee levels that are reasonable and stable. Certainty of funding for universities and research – for example legislated funding cycles that go beyond elections, that would allow universities to hire more permanent staff.
Sustainability. Where good levels of government investment in higher education can be sustained for decades. And where there’s a strong international education offering that both adds to the student experience and our national export income.
Prosperity. Educating Australians for their dream job. A university system designed to underpin job creation, productivity and our national prosperity. And where the benefits of university research are used to create Australian jobs and economic growth.

How will this be done?:

The accord process would be led by the minister with advice from small group of eminent Australians from across the political spectrum

I’m not quite sure how to interpret this. An ‘accord’ process would produce a sector wish list at odds with the fiscal realities the government faces. While genuine consultation, which was often missing from the previous government’s policymaking, would help minimise errors and build political support, the interest groups should not decide policy. A consultation paper that conveys a real sense of the trade-offs involved might help.

I also would not want the ‘accord’ to be implemented like the mission-based compacts introduced when Labor was last in office or the funding agreements as they evolved under the Coalition. I have not looked at the latest compacts in any detail, but there is a tendency for the government to get universities to ‘agree’ to things rather than develop policies with a clear statutory basis. That said, Plibersek’s mention of ‘legislated funding cycles’ is an improvement on current ministerial discretion.

The cross-benchers

At the time of writing it is not clear whether Labor can form a House of Representatives majority in its own right. If it cannot, the views of the cross-bench become important.

On higher education the Greens are too far from Labor’s fiscal realities for any broad agreement on action. Labor is not going to make university education free or write-off existing student debt. However the Greens may vote for Labor legislation on other higher education matters.

The teals don’t have detailed higher education policies, but I have found some references to the area (just looking at their websites; there may be more content in other public statements).

Allegra Spender in Wentworth, Kylea Tink in North Sydney, Zali Steggall in Warringah, Zoe Daniel in Goldstein, Monique Ryan in Kooyong, but not Sophie Scamps in Mackellar or Kate Chaney in Curtin mention research in their policies, but only the first three expressly mention university research.

Spender proposes ‘rebalancing’ the cost of Arts degrees, which lines up with Labor’s affordability pledge. Tink says she will ‘fight for better support for public and tertiary education and skills training’. Steggall opposed Job-ready Graduates. On the other hand, Sharkie voted for JRG.

In the end, the Senate rather than the House of Representatives cross-bench will probably be more important. It will take some time to see what that looks like.

It’s worth noting too that Labor is seeking Liberal support. Much of what they might want to do would not look too different to policies Liberal governments supported for long periods of time. So some consensus across red, teal and blue is possible.

One thought on “A few notes on the future of higher education policy

  1. Thanks Andrew for this summary. Labor also plans to “establish Jobs and Skills Australia as an independent body to bring together the business community, states and territories, unions, education providers and regional organisations to match skills training with the evolving demands of industry and strengthen workforce planning”. One of the positive outcomes of an Australian Universities Accord process as I see it would be to establish a Tertiary Education Commission to design and review reforms on fees and funding and qualifications, that consider HE and VET as a more cohesive post-secondary system with Commonwealth and State co-ordination built in. Such a body could then co-ordinate its long term planning with that of Jobs and Skills Australia.


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