Australian higher education

Peter van Onselen claims (The Weekend Australian 10-11 Jan 2014) that deregulation of university fees, one way or another, is inevitable, because the only alternative is to reinstate caps on university places, which he thinks is politically impossible. 

There is no reason why we should accept either of these propositions.

Why not recap university enrolments? A university degree is meant to improve a person’s earning capacity, but clearly the value of a degree declines the more people have one. Oh, no, wait, if those competitive dynamics force them to do a second, postgraduate degree to get their increased value, we can make even more money out their fees, and reduce Commonwealth support even more.

Why not simply increase HECS fees? Because competition is such a good thing, it will close down the ‘uncompetitive’ universities, and enable the sandstone universities to be as good as Harvard and Yale. Never mind that the regional universities will be the ones to close – no problem says van Onselen, we’re a mobile lot. Doesn’t matter that comparison with US Ivy League universities is just silly – they’re private universities, they have a tenth of our enrolment – and that we’re already punching well above our weight in the global rankings.

Why not increase, instead of decreasing, public investment in higher education? Because so many policy-makers want to live in this nuff-nuff land where there are no taxes, there is no government, and everyone is ‘free’.

The problem is that universities have come to be seen as a good little earner rather than an investment, by all of us, in our shared future. Instead of just accepting that public investment in universities is doomed to keep falling, perhaps we could put down our copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and read Josephy Stiglitz instead.