OPINION: Regional unis take the brunt

CONTROVERSIAL: Higher education is facing an overhaul.
CONTROVERSIAL: Higher education is facing an overhaul.

THE Abbott government’s restructure of higher education will – if passed – significantly disadvantage rural and regional students and institutions. 

Fees will go up and students will be carrying more debt for a longer period of time.  No one contests these propositions, not even the minister himself.  Indeed, he says it’s only fair that students should pay a greater share of their education. 

I make four points. 

First, education demand is price sensitive.  That is, many students either can’t afford to pay more or won’t see the value of a degree if the price is too high.   

For example, Australian Veterinary Association modelling suggests that a young person contemplating life as a vet will face a final fee debt of $250,000.  Given the average annual wage for a fully qualified vet is $76,984, you can see how this debt may be somewhat of a disincentive.

Second, we need rural and regional Australia to be doing well to conclude Australia is doing well.  Therefore, we all want regional universities to thrive.  This is where Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s “free market” approach really starts to run into trouble.  

Make no mistake, the government’s plan for our universities will hit regional universities hardest.  Therefore, it will hurt the aspirations of rural and regional students and their communities most. 

Mr  Pyne expects universities to replace the billions of dollars he’s cutting from their budgets by increasing student fees.  But unlike the sandstone universities in our capital cities, the capacity for regional universities to raise fees is limited by the capacity of the students to pay. 

Let me explain.  The Australian National University has 7832undergraduate students of which 273 or 3.5per cent are of from low-income families.  For the universities of Sydney and Melbourne, the figures are 7.3per cent and 8.4per cent respectively.  By contrast, Central Queensland University (with 35.5per cent), Southern Cross University (26.4per cent), the University of New England (24.7per cent), University of Newcastle (24.3per cent), Charles Sturt University (24.1per cent), and Ballarat University (23.9per cent) have many more students of low socio-economic status.  So it is to state the obvious to say that those city-based “elite” universities are in a much better position to recover money lost to government cuts by raising fees than those operating in the regions. 

Third point: those tempted to think about making students pay more should think about the greater good.  Our regional universities are key drivers of local economies.  They are major employers but they are more than that.  Regional universities are part of the social fabric of regional communities. 

I’m most familiar with the University of Newcastle, which is critical to the Hunter’s economy but you have to travel to places like Bathurst and Armidale to fully appreciate what a “university town” looks like.  In those places, the whole town seems to revolve around the university. 

My fourth point is this: regional universities play a vital role in driving national innovation, productivity and development.  They tend to focus their research in areas like agriculture, which are so important to rural and regional communities.

I will make this prediction – if Mr  Pyne secures parliamentary passage for his unfair university changes it won’t be long before we have a two-tier university system in Australia.  

The divide will be between the eight elite universities, which will both teach and undertake research, and the regional universities, which will teach only.  I can’t imagine those “teach only” universities are going to be much of a magnet to those PhD students and academics keen to pursue research projects.  

And, of course, we all know that those most likely to practise medicine or teach in the bush are those who grew up in the bush and studied in the bush.  This is something the Adelaide-based Mr  Pyne does not understand. 

Indeed, every savings measure in Tony Abbott’s first budget falls disproportionally on rural and regional Australia and those with the least ability to absorb the impacts. I’ll leave it for readers to conclude whether that’s deliberate or because his senior ministers just don’t get it.  Joe Hockey’s “poor people don’t drive” might provide a hint! 

This article was first published in farmonline.com.au.

 Joel Fitzgibbon is the federal member for the Hunter. He is shadow minister for agriculture and rural affairs and spokesman for Labor’s Country Caucus

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