A letter from Australia: Needles in strawberries

It’s been four weeks since Australia’s last Prime Ministerial coup. While a needles-in-strawberries tampering scandal continues to dominate the news, a new “tax” was quietly introduced to Parliament on Friday which will see universities charged for costs incurred by the government in administering the student loans scheme (glibly acronymed as HELP in Australia).

It’s only $10m a year but universities, unsurprisingly, are crying foul. Conor King from the Innovative Research Universities group, called it “a rort”. He pointed out that the government was trying to bill universities for a service provided to students and that it “hardly a fair or transparent way of further reducing funding”. Good point.

Another insider said it was “gratuitous and arbitrary” and the amount so small it was designed just to “annoy universities”. It certainly seems pedantic at best and yet another layer in the mountains of red tape each successive government promises to reduce.

Rorts for all

Speaking of rorts, the head of the federal education department was last week handed the power to waive fees for thousands of students ripped off in during the VET FEE-HELP crisis. Over the course of six years, around $7.5bn was handed to vocational providers in the form of students loans. An estimated $1bn went to courses and providers so dodgy, completion rates of below 5% were recorded. (There were reported cases of providers targeting remote indigenous communities and offering free iPads and laptops to mature age locals who were illiterate. In one case, agents for one provider had been offering up free booze and marijuana to locals who got their friends to sign on).

In the meantime, Education Minister Dan Tehan has started meeting with university heads, his first meeting with the Group of Eight vice-chancellors on Thursday evening. Wonkhe understands he’s keen to know hear what universities want (and the most likely answer is “nothing at the moment thanks – please just leave us alone”). To date, the new government has made noises on just two areas involving universities: somehow encouraging international students to go to regional universities and freedom of speech.

Manipulating the market

Unsurprisingly, the majority of universities are not au fait with manipulating the market with incentives to attend unpopular institutions. They are justifiably concerned that any moves that preference regional universities will just see the best overseas students head, well overseas, to the US, Canada or the UK. Or stay in China for that matter. They are also concerned that any moves to link study destination with permanent residency would see a repeat of the visas-for-PR scandal that spun out of control during the Howard era. Now that mess has finally been tidied up, no one is too thrilled with the prospect of a repeat of it.

Of course, the Regional Universities Network is in ardent support of the idea since they will be the major beneficiaries. But, as Phil Honeywood, head of the International Education Association of Australia pointed out, most regional universities have outsourced their international provision to third party providers in high-rise city buildings. As Honeywood noted, while this helps regional universities get a foot in the door of the booming $30bn international student market, it also serves to exacerbate the overcrowding, congestion and infrastructure problems in the inner cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane – the very problem the government claims it is trying to alleviate. He also pointed out there were few part-time jobs in regional towns.

Twice a day trains

While the idea of reinvigorating regional towns with hordes of international students is on the cards, it’s worth pointing out that the biggest town in Minister Tehan’s electorate is Warrnambool with a population of 34,000. It is home to a campus of Deakin University (student enrolments 54,330), which it attempted to shut down in 2016 due to dwindling enrolments and the costs associated with running small remote campuses (current enrolments 850). While Warrnambool’s physical attractions obvious – it is located on the stunning (and wild) Great Australian Bight – it’s a three-hour drive to Melbourne and almost seven hours to Adelaide. The train runs just twice a day.

The thing that is worrying universities is that Prime Minister Scott Morrison has flagged the government has “levers” at its disposal to encourage international students to attend regional campuses (one assumes this means preferential visas and funding measures).

And while it would be a very odd thing for a free-market government to intervene in the very free and unencumbered international student market, the ramifications of ill-thought out policy is all too real in the education sector; to wit VET FEE-HELP and the still-recent student-visas-for-permanent-residency scandals.

But with a looming (and likely unwinnable) election, and plenty of marginal seats in regional areas, all bets are off.

Leave a Reply