Changes to University Fees: Pyne Has His Eyes Set On An Australian Ivy-League

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WORDS | Ellen Kirkpatrick

In light of Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s comments over social media, a funding system similar to that of the United States (US) may be on the books for Australian universities.

In response to the recent Kemp-Norton review, the government is considering major reforms to the university funding system. The review suggests the expansion of Commonwealth funding to include private and other non-university higher education providers, an increase in student fees, and the introduction of a tax on HECS.
Australia’s current system, a demand driven system, was introduced by the former Labor government, making higher education more accessible to low socioeconomic groups. Rates of participation in higher education also rose due to the increased freedom of bachelor enrolments.

Higher education in the US is strikingly different to Australia. Universities are primarily research-oriented, educational institutions, providing both undergraduate and postgraduate programs. Students, however, have many other tertiary options.

The US higher education system was described as an ‘excellence unaffordable for any but the rich’ by Sydney Morning Herald journalist Peter Hartcher. Indeed, university fees are notoriously high, with the average student debt nearing $30,000. The average in Australia is less than half this. Many students enrolled in higher education in the US must apply for scholarships, loans and grants to assist with their payment. There is also a disturbing trend in the US higher education sector of institutions increasingly relying on corporate funding and private philanthropy.

Unlike Australia, US governments have no role in the regulation of any higher education institution. A move towards a US university system would therefore mean a withdrawal of government intervention. An attractive idea for some, but one that is not without concerns. Pyne is hoping to capture the best features of the US system but avoid the worst.