More than a cash cow?

Will free education make a comeback?
30 April 2019

Amidst a lack of discussion around higher education policy, the Australian Greens' proposal to make undergraduate studies free, though unlikely to be passed, might be the key to sparking greater interest, Margaret Thornton writes. 

Very little is heard about higher education in the daily stoush between the leaders of the political parties, nor does it feature more generally in discussion of the big ticket items ─ 'the economy' and climate change ─ although it clearly informs both.

The invisibility of higher education in 2019 contrasts markedly with the situation in 2014 when deregulation of fees was proposed by the Coalition and the prospect of $100,000 undergraduate degrees provoked a strong community reaction. Although the policy was defeated, deregulation continues to be a Coalition policy, but it is clearly an electoral loser and has not surfaced again.

Unless a higher education policy is radical, it does not strike a chord with the electorate. Primary, secondary, and TAFE education are perceived to be of greater interest to ordinary voters. Provided that their children can attend university with the prospect of a good job upon graduating, most people regard higher education policy as esoteric and of little relevance.

In any case, radical change in the sector is unlikely as far as the major parties are concerned. Higher education is unbelievably lucrative, adding approximately $140 billion to the economy a year. It is also the third largest export earner behind coal and iron ore.

In view of the extent of this profitability, any reduction in fees, let alone their abolition, is almost unimaginable, despite it being advocated and even taking place in other OECD countries. Indeed, it is notable that Jeremy Corbyn has promised abolition of fees if British Labour is elected to government, Germany has abolished fees for undergraduates across its states, and New Zealand offered the first year of an undergraduate degree free from 2018.

If higher education were free in Australia, it would, of course, have to be paid for out of the public purse. Given the present frenzy over tax breaks and securing a budget surplus, it is difficult to see Australia moving away from the user-pays philosophy any time soon.

With no up-front fees, the deferred repayment system - FEE-HELP - conveys the appearance of fairness. However, the system can disguise substantial student debt, particularly in the case of full-fee courses, which universities feel compelled to offer to counteract recurrent government underfunding and periodic freezes.

With the major parties resisting any change in tuition fees, it is notable that abolition is a key plank of the Greens' policy. In recognition of growing student debt, the Greens propose that all undergraduate university courses, in addition to all TAFE courses, be free.

As the Greens are a minor party, the policy has little chance of being implemented, but putting it on the agenda is an important initiative and could signal the beginning of a serious conversation. They also propose augmenting the funding of all Commonwealth-supported places in recognition of systemic underfunding that has resulted in the widespread casualisation of teaching.

The Coalition, on the other hand, suggests an increase in bachelor level places for universities, commensurate with population growth in 2020, but while also making access to additional funding conditional on academic performance. The criteria are yet to be determined, but an expert panel has been established and a process of public consultation proposed.

The education sector has already been appraised of the fact that all publicly funded research is conditional on the need to establish a 'return for taxpayers' through its National Interest Test. However, the proposal that there be more money to increase higher education participation by rural and regional students does not appear to be conditional.

Labor's main policy element, which distinguishes it from the Coalition, is to uncap places across universities. This resurrects its previous policy that was frozen by the Federal Government in 2017, and is likely to be viewed positively by the sector - particularly the regionals, as they have limited ability to raise alternative sources of revenue.

In accordance with Labor's social justice agenda, the party also proposes to reinstate equity places for students from low socio-economic backgrounds and from underrepresented groups, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples, as well as students with disabilities.

It is also notable that One Nation has pledged its support for public higher education ─ provided that it is offered at a reasonable cost and Australians are preferred over 'foreigners'.

The Greens' policy to return to free university education, which Australia experienced briefly between 1974 and 1989, is the most interesting of the policies, but it is unlikely to be accorded serious consideration. Nevertheless, it could enliven the agenda of Labor's proposed National Inquiry into Post-Secondary Education ─ provided that the party is elected.

Margaret Thornton is Professor of Law at the Australian National University and a Barrister of the Supreme Court of NSW and the High Court of Australia

This article is part of The Australian National University's Australian Election coverage, and published in partnership with Policy Forum.