Higher Education

By Levi Vanderwee. 22nd June 2016.

We have tried our best to provide an accurate summary of where the parties stand, but would advise that you also read more broadly and verify other sources of information before deciding who to vote for.

Education is always one of the most heavily contested battlegrounds between the two major parties. Labor tells us to beware of $100,000 degrees and the Americanisation of our universities and TAFE's. The Coalition believes that universities need to be more competitive and can perform better.

Primary and high schools are a huge part of education but here we are just going to look at what the politicians are saying about higher education – a fancy term used to describe Uni, Tafe, apprenticeships and private colleges.

A lot of people undertake higher education at some point to boost their skills or to gain extra knowledge (or to kill time!). Some attend pottery classes on Thursday evenings while others learn about the history of Flemish cities in the 9th Century. Others still are cracking the human genome or learning how to be fitters and turners. 

Every single person who has acquired a recognised skill or qualification has been a beneficiary of Australia’s higher education policies.

Higher Education is therefore a big deal – and the parties have cottoned onto it.

Below we look at what they’ve got to say about it. You’ll see that they argue over the best ways to ensure there are enough places for all students and that these classes don’t cost you several (or at least too many) non-vital organs.

Key Info:

Labor and the Greens have done us the pleasure of setting out their higher education policies in quite a lot of detail.

Both of them have committed to spending more federal government money to ease the financial burden on students attending university and TAFE while still ensuring that there are enough places to accommodate all students.  The Coalition has been a bit shy when it comes to listing the details of what they intend to do. They have indicated that they still want a system where students pay higher fees to attend university and TAFE while reducing federal government support of those institutions.

We’ll start with Universities before taking a look at TAFE and Vocational Education.


Universities:

Labor

Labor will focus on:

  1. Increase the number of students completing their study by 20,000 graduates a year from 2020.
  2. Introduce a new Student Funding Guarantee to remove the need for higher fees and a lifetime of debt.
  3. Invest $31 million to boost the quality of teaching and resources  in our universities.
  4. Boost the number of young Australians taking up STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) courses at university as well as up skilling 25,000 teachers.

Labor will continue the demand driven system that has seen an extra 190,000 students are enrolled at university today. 

Labor claims that by 2026, Labor’s student funding guarantee will see universities more than 40 per cent or $4,000 better off per student each year in government funding compared to the Liberal Government’s policy.

Labor will entice people to study STEM courses by offering to write off the HECS debts of 100,000 students who complete a STEM degree at university.

The net impact of Labor’s package, costed by the Parliamentary Budget Office, is $2.5 billion over 4 years.

Labor will abolish the following to save money:

Expansion of the demand-driven system to sub-bachelor places and to bachelor places at non-university higher education providers;
Abolishing FEE–HELP and VET FEE–HELP loan fees; and

The Coalition

The Government's previous policy (announced in the 2014 budget) to fully deregulate university fees has been dumped. The original plan consisted of 4 main elements:

  • Allow for universities to set their own prices for the courses that they offer (currently they are set by an independent government regulator)
  • Lower the threshold by which graduates repay their HECS/HELP debts (currently set at $54,126).
  • Change the indexation that is charged on HECS Fees so that the indexation (effectively interest) on the debt could rise above the 2.5% limit.
  • Cut federal funding for universities by 20%.

Education minister Simon Birmingham has confirmed the Turnbull government won’t be taking a higher education policy to the federal election.

Instead, the government will consult with the sector and wait until late 2016 or early 2017 to announce its reforms. It plans to make its higher education changes in 2018.

 Recently Malcolm Turnbull has indicated that the Coalition would still seek to partially deregulate university fees by which universities would be able to set their own prices within a government approved maximum limit.

The Greens

The Greens support the following measures:

  • Free university education for Australian students
  • Full-time university and VET students are entitled to a living allowance that enables them to focus primarily on their studies instead of working
  • Support keeping Student Start-Up Scholarship as a scholarship rather than a loan which students will have to pay off. this scholarship allows students to purchase the textbooks and equipment
  • Retain safe spaces for gay students as well as trans, women and migrant/culturally diverse students to discuss and advocate for change.

Assessment (TLDR: 3 things you need to know about uni's)

The Greens have the most generous university education policy for university students, advocating for free university.

Labor is committed as well to increased public funding for universities and reducing HECS debts.

The Coalition currently has no official position on university education funding however statements from ministers and the Prime Minister indicate that they continue to support a model of reduced government funding and universities setting higher student fees.


TAFE and Vocational Education

Labor

Under Labor’s plan for TAFE, a Shorten Labor Government will work with Premiers and Chief Ministers on a comprehensive National Priority Plan that defines the unique role of TAFE and places it squarely as the public provider within the VET (Vocational Education and Training) sector. Labor will seek to change the contestable and non-contestable funding model to benefit TAFE over private providers.

Contestable funding refers to how much vocational training money from the government will be "contestable" between TAFE and private trainers next year. Labor will cap this at 30% meaning that 70% of funding from the federal government will flow to TAFE.

When Labor was in government they extended the access to HECS  loans to private education providers. Labor will seek to abolish this scheme as the system has become expensive and some private education providers have exploited students using the system.

The Coalition

The Coalition Government doesn't have a clear policy regarding the VET sector. They claim they will invest around $7 billion in the VET sector each year through funding and student loans. This includes $1.8 billion to the states and territories to support their training systems, including TAFE.

In March 2016 the coalition government had created a paper that details an option for TAFE fees to be deregulated and TAFEs would receive the same levels of funding as private colleges in a bid to increase competition in the sector

Similarly to Universities, it appears that the Coalition favours some form of deregulation of fees in relation to TAFE as well, however that position hasn't been made clear yet.

The Greens

The Greens policies are:

  • Vocational education and training (VET) should be primarily provided through the public TAFE system
  • TAFE should be free
  • To phase out public funding of privately provided colleges where TAFE can provide the same educational and training outcomes
  • The community not-for-profit adult education and VET sectors should also be supported, but not be at the expense of, or in competition with, public TAFE
  • Full time VET students are entitled to a living allowance that enables them to focus primarily on their studies
  • No government funding for for-profit VET providers.

Assessment (TLDR: TAFE and Vocational Education)

Once again the Greens have the most generous policy towards TAFE and its students as well as those attending community colleges. They want free higher education for universities and TAFE as well as an allowance for full time students.

Labor has also committed itself to greater funding for TAFE while limiting funding for profit driven private colleges. This increased funding for TAFE's mimics their approach to university funding.

Similarly to its university policy, the Coalition is unclear about their plans for TAFE but a similar deregulatory approach to TAFE fees and reduced funding for vocational education could be on the cards.