Universities Australia CEO Belinda Robinson insists that UA’s affirmative stance on fee deregulation has not changed, despite chairman Barney Glover’s comments in an interview with Fairfax that said deregulation of university fees is not essential.

According to the Fairfax interview:

“When asked if fee deregulation is needed for an affordable and high quality university sector, Professor Glover said: ‘No, of course it isn’t.’

“‘Deregulation is at one end of the spectrum; at the other end is the system as it is now.’

“Professor Glover said two principles are non-negotiable for Universities Australia: maintaining the integrity of the income-contingent university loans scheme (HECS) and retaining the demand-driven system that allows universities to decide how many students they enrol in each discipline.”

But Robinson says UA still supports fee deregulation.

In an interview with The Australian on Tuesday, Robinson said:

“UA has not reversed its position on fee deregulation. There appears to have been some confusion over our calls for enhanced funding for research. It appears the journalist conflated that with a change on our position over fee deregulation.”

UA has supported university fee deregulation since the idea was introduced in the 2014 budget, in which the Liberal government announced it was cutting $2.3 billion worth of funding to higher education.

The deregulation of fees would mean that caps limiting how much universities are allowed to charge for courses would be removed, leaving universities free to raise the prices to whatever they chose.

Under the proposal, the government would cut the money it provides to universities for each course by roughly 20%, as well as require students to start to pay back their HELP debt when they earn $50,638 or over, rather than $53,345, as under the current scheme.

The bill to pass deregulation has been brought forward to the Senate on two separate occasions, in December 2014 and a reformed version in March this year. It was rejected both times.

Elite universities have been very supportive of the proposal (as they would be able to raise their fees), and in 2014 UA’s then-chair Sarah Harding urged politicians to pass the deregulation bill: “We certainly are calling upon parliamentarians to support fee deregulation. This is an important and a very timely innovation reform for higher education.”

When asked to clarify its current stance on fee deregulation, Universities Australia referred to a press release from August 2014. In the press release, UA chief executive Belinda Robertson says:

“While the Government has made clear that it intends to introduce the package to the Parliament in its current form, UA will be meeting with Senators to encourage them to consider changes in key areas.”

“UA agrees with the [Education] Minister [Christopher Pyne] that changes are required to prevent Australia being left behind in the ever-intensifying competitive global higher education environment.”

Pyne has said the deregulation will help to drive fees down by creating a competitive environment as universities compete to offer the best prices to attract students, allowing young students greater access to university courses.

But Melbourne University vice-chancellor Glyn Davis warned in May last year that fees could instead rise by more than 60%, in order to cover money lost from federal budget cuts. Davis has been — and remains — a qualified supporter of the deregulation of university fees. The removal of the cap would allow universities like Melbourne to charge much higher fees based on the prestige of their institutions.

When asked about Glover’s comments and UA’s potential backflip on their previous stance on deregulation, Davis said: “To the best of our understanding, UA’s position on deregulation has remained constant. As a university, we will continue to work with industry bodies to further the discussion on sustainable university funding.”

Having already been rejected in the Senate twice and facing strong opposition from Labor, the Greens and independent members, it is looking like Pyne’s big piece as Education Minister is fighting a losing battle.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey