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Students deserve a level playing field

By Professor Tim Brailsford
Vice Chancellor and President

Australian universities face difficult questions and must confront looming challenges if we are to maintain a position of competitive strength.

The best university systems in the world embrace diversity, both in mission and structure. These systems lead to student destinations in which the personal attributes, aptitude and goals of each individual are accommodated. There is a place for everyone and the system is designed to allow the next generation to thrive.

Unfortunately, the Australian system is one where homogeneity and conformity is encouraged, if not enforced.

Bond is the only university in the country that receives no direct government funding for student places, and has never received a single commonwealth-funded student place in its history. The university survives through its dedication to the student learning process and its ability to adapt to industry demands. As such, Bond, as a market-exposed institution, is at the forefront of change and swings in student enrolment patterns.

It is important for the higher education system that institutions such as Bond are given the opportunity to compete on the global stage and to contribute to the health and diversity of the system. Both sides of politics should embrace the concept of a complete higher education market. Other countries have done so, with much success. In the US and Scandinavia, non-public universities comprise 30 per cent of enrolments.

By contrast, in Australia public institutions capture 98.4 per cent of all university enrolments. It remains a paradox when Australia has embraced a diversified approach to schools, where 35 per cent of enrolments are in non-public independent schools.

As with sand poured into a bucket of rocks, where the grains occupy the air pockets and together with the rocks create a solid platform that remains intact even when subject to vigorous force, so too a diverse university system, in which there is opportunity for institutions of all shapes, sizes and structures, is better equipped to cope with change.

The common and sometimes instant reaction to non-public universities is that quality will decline and we should not profit from education.

A delineation needs to be made between non-profit and for-profit institutions. Private does not equate to for-profit. Further, as history has demonstrated, accusations of lowering standards to increase revenues are not restricted to non-public universities. Indeed, many of the quality scandals have been associated with public universities. Their private counterparts have greater market-based incentives to maintain standards to protect their brand. Moreover, the national regulator now provides oversight and control of brand Australia.

Not only is the playing field uneven in relation to government funding but there are also policy differences. As an example, a student who enrols in a public university is able to defer the payment of their student contributions, no matter how much, through HECS until they meet a threshold annual income.

However, if the same student enrols in a private university, they are able to defer their tuition fee only up to a capped limit and must pay a 25 per cent administration fee.

One can only wonder how the government's own philosophy of competitive neutrality can be so easily waived, and how the fundamentals of competition policy can be ignored.

While the world of higher education policy can be a complex maze of egos, politics and black holes that has swallowed up many ministers through the years, it's also one we must get right.

The plea is to all sides of politics to commit to the construction of a diverse system underpinned by a commitment to the establishment of a level playing field where students are not penalised for choosing a non-public university. Sorting out the differences between FEE-HELP and HECS would be a good start.

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