Dear Western Sydney MPs
We write to express our deep concern regarding the possible damaging long-term effects for the people of Western Sydney of proposed deregulation of fees and cuts announced in the federal budget.* We acknowledge that when scrutinising the national accounts, balancing priorities and reducing wasteful spending all can expect their share of the burden. However, it is clear that the proposed measures do not really concern tightening expenditure. Most commentators agree that this will fundamentally reshape higher education, and in a way that will likely put a good university education out of reach for many of the people of Greater Western Sydney.
As staff at the University of Western Sydney, our mission is to deliver an education of the highest standard to the people of Western Sydney. Since becoming a university twenty-five years ago, we have applied ourselves tirelessly to this task and our ever-improving research performance has us regularly in the top third of Australian universities. This prestige and knowledge is then passed onto our students, almost all of whom come from the area. We know all about the challenges of delivering a quality education to students who are less well-off, who are frequently the first in their family to go to university and for whom English is often a second language. As we give these students a leg up we open the doors to the knowledge professions, which in turn vitalises our region’s economy and culture.
This is imperilled by the proposed reforms in a number of ways.
In order to maintain current revenue, universities will have no choice but to increase fees by at least 50% and it is expected that most will increase fees by between 100% and 200%, or more. While the income contingent HELP loans will continue, these will now accrue real interest from the moment students are granted the loan, meaning that students will approach a university education as a serious financial risk, akin to a second mortgage. Debt will keep piling up even if they are not earning enough to repay it, which discourages aspiration. Many of our students already have families to support, and such levels of debt will represent an unmanageable burden. We might look to the US, where student loan debt exceeds one trillion dollars, more than both credit-card debt and auto-loan debt. Only mortgage debt remains higher. This debt crisis has transpired even though American students are still eligible to take out loans that do not accrue interest while they are enrolled in a degree program.
Many of our students come from families with no previous tertiary background and are usually unfamiliar with the nature of university education. It would be folly to regard them as fully informed consumers who can properly assess the risk. Many will opt for alternative sub-university providers who promise cheap qualifications but without the intellectual rigour and cultural capital that comes with the university environment. In the UK, recent partial deregulation of fees has led to flagrant abuses by private providers, who boost their income enrolling students on public loans regardless of their preparedness. This, in turn, has led to budget blow outs in and expensive investigations by the National Audit Office. In the US, the University of Phoenix was fined ten million dollars for similar practices. It is not encouraging that the budget proposes reducing the funding for the standards regulator TEQSA by half. When students do not complete, they are hardly more employable and so frequently do not earn enough to reach the threshold of repayment, which means the state has squandered tax payers’ money.
Introducing pricing signals will immediately favour the more established and elite institutions and they are expected rapidly to increase their fees. This will by no means ensure that their students receive a better education. More likely, increased fees will go towards cross-subsidising research to boost international rankings. We at UWS will continue to strive to provide an excellent education; but we enter the market as a relatively new institution. With the system no longer geared to promoting high-performing research across all institutions, some of our best researchers may be drawn to the expanding elite. The great gains from public investment in UWS by successive governments risks being squandered as we are forced to compete on price with bottom-end private institutions that have no pretence to provide a true university education.
The government has sought to mitigate the inequitable effects of its policies by directing a percentage of fee increases to bursaries or waivers for students from low socio-economic backgrounds. It has been pointed out that there are a number of implementation issues, including the varieties of income in any given area and the vagaries of designating income for tax purposes. In all likelihood this will necessitate an expensive and intrusive system of case-by-case means testing: money for more bureaucracy rather than laboratories and classrooms. It is a convoluted and expensive way of ensuring access to higher education, when such funds could simply continue to support and build those universities which are already directly within reach of those in need.
Whichever party you belong to, and whatever your economic principles, we implore you to scrutinise the policy from the perspective of those you represent and ensure the people of Western Sydney do not get left behind. As professional teachers and researchers, we are committed to working hard for our students and the people of Western Sydney, and will do so within whatever framework emerges. However, we believe our collective interest as Westies can only be served by voting against the proposals.
*The views and opinions expressed in this letter are solely the views and expressions of its authors and signatories and do not necessarily represent the official view of UWS.