University reforms “unfair to students”

Please find below an important speech from Professor Stephen Parker, vice-chancellor of the University of Canberra, who has broken ranks with his counterparts and declared the Abbott Government’s proposed university reforms as “unfair to students and poorly designed policy”.


Thank you for inviting me to speak here at one of the oldest public spaces in Australian higher education.

Had someone told me last summer that I would be speaking in the Quadrangle on the first day of next summer to defend public universities I would have ridiculed the idea.

Somehow I believed what the Coalition wrote in early 2013, that there would be no change to University funding arrangements.

Somehow I believed what Tony Abbott said to the Universities Australia conference in March 2013 that we could expect a period of benign neglect from an Abbott Government.

And somehow I believed what he said two days before the Election in September 2013, that there would be no cuts to education.

It is the last of these canards that is so shocking. He knew he was going to win, so he didn’t even need to promise it to gain votes.

But here we are and here I am.

A further surprise has been to find myself the only Vice-Chancellor to say publicly what at least a few actually believe.

I have tried to understand other Vice-Chancellors’ perspectives. I’ve worked at Group of Eight and more modern universities. I was the Senior DVC at Monash. I know the pressures: but nothing justifies the position that they and UA have taken.

These reforms are unfair to students and poorly designed policy. If they go through, Australia is sleepwalking towards the privatisation of its universities. And ironically they will be the death knell of our peak group, Universities Australia, which could not survive them for long.

Let me explain.


These reforms are unfair to students – the constituency to which I have devoted 35 years of my working life.

They have to lead to significant increases in student debt; because this is part of the Government’s case for them.

Minister Pyne says the reforms are a way to bring fresh funding into universities, so he must assume that we will go further than just replace government cuts with higher tuition fees.

Australian students already pay a higher proportion of their tuition than those in most OECD countries. This will blight the lives of a generation, unless Australia comes to its senses. Today Mission Australia released its Youth Survey showing that most teenagers rank career success as their top aspiration, but only around half feel the goal is attainable. It will become a whole lot harder under these changes.

And the impact on women and certain professions will be worse, as Ben Phillips and I have demonstrated in articles in The Conversation, when we modelled the likely HECS debts of female scientists, nurses and teachers based on typical career trajectories.


These reforms are poorly designed policy. Where do I start?

They emerged as a budget measure, but they won’t save the tax-payer money in any real sense.

A fundamental feature of HECS is that the Government forwards all the money upfront to the University. So if fees go up by more than the cuts, the Commonwealth shells out more from day one. Default will rise. More students will work overseas – legitimately, this is not evasion – and so only through some arcane aspect of accounting standards can this even look as if it is a savings measure.

This isn’t a savings measure: it is ideology in search of a problem.

But it gets worse. Bizarrely there is no guarantee that a single cent of the extra money will go into the student’s course: it could go into research, infrastructure, paying for past follies or current cock-ups. It’s tempting, believe me, I make them too, but it’s wrong.

The internal equity aspect of the policy design is laughable: why should the second poorest quartile of students subsidise the lowest quartile?

So I ask myself which policy amateur came up with the scheme in the first place?


In June this year I wrote in The Conversation about the slide towards privatisation. I compared universities with public utilities where the then managements were initially encouraged to be “commercial” and “competitive”. Then they were actually pitted against private providers. Then the utilities were privatised themselves, and required a complete focus on private profit.

The privatisation that we are sleep-walking towards may or may not involve shareholders and the stock market –but it will involve the removal of the public voice.

I can hear the argument in my head already. Some Vice-Chancellor, perhaps one who has championed competition reforms in an earlier life or been the CEO of a large public company, will say: now that universities compete for places and on price, and they compete with private providers, including multi-nationals, we need a level playing field.

“We have one hand tied behind our backs. We need to be ‘set free’, so let’s get auditor-generals out of the place, let’s stop state governments appointing our Senates and Councils, and let’s get staff and students off them whilst we are at it.”

And so on. It will all have a compelling logic because of the corner we have boxed ourselves into.


These reforms also ring the death knell of our peak body – Universities Australia. The support that UA is giving them is a strange form of suicide ritual.

Older universities, which have benefited from decades of public money, built a brand at taxpayer expense and who now want to run away with it, will raise their fees more, the stratification of institutions will intensify, competition and dog-eat-dog will be the order of the day: and when they have milked the peak group for what they can get out of it the elites will dance away in a figure eight formation.

We have just seen a week of bizarre national adverts from UA, presumably aimed at 6 cross-bench senators at the most, full of Orwellian doublespeak that the reforms are fair to students.

Whether it breaks up soon because the tensions are too great, or it survives until the interest group factions have no more use for it and spit it out, UA is doomed because it has lost its moral compass.

I personally will not attend a further meeting of an organisation with necrotizing fasciitis; the condition where the body eats its own flesh.


So wake up Australia if you want to preserve your children’s life chances.

Wake up academia – especially those of you who write about public policy but have been strangely silent on this issue.

Wake up Senators – you know not what you are playing with – you are aiding and abetting a fraud on the electorate.

Maintain the fight everyone. If the Government won’t take the honourable course of acknowledging these reforms are a gross violation of pre-election promises and put them before the electorate, then we must make sure that they lose that election because of them. And I believe they will, as the Victorian State Election on Saturday indicated.

Stand up everyone for public universities, reject the reforms, join us at the table for a sensible conversation, without a gun at our heads, about how to make Australian public higher education great.

Congratulations to NAPU; you are doing what your seniors are too complacent to do.


Thank you.

Professor Stephen Parker

University of Canberra


Unconventional Economist
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  1. Vice-Chancellors won’t come out against this because they are more concerned with managing their internal fiefdoms. They literally couldn’t give a s**t about what is the most equitable outcome for students, and how this fits within the kind of country most Australians want preserved The LNP deserves to be put to the sword for many of its policy lies and obfuscations, but this has to be top of the list.

      • is that the same ANU you were slagging off just the other month for having a low entry criteria ?

      • The same ANU I was slagging off for its selective divestment of energy and mining companies. Redeemed somewhat in the past few days for demanding submarine manufacture remains in Oz. Clearly ANU has had an epiphany and come to the realisation submarines cannot be constructed without a substantial mining and energy input.

        I expect retraction of recently announced divestment policy imminent.

        Oh, and I may have had a gentle poke at student activists – irresistible really.

      • Well, you won’t have to worry about such narrative disrupting elements as student activists when they’re on the hook for $70,000. A more sensible, compliant, academically focussed student body is essential for our nation’s productivity enhancing future. This narrative just writes itself ! Hard to imagine why people are so reluctant to have Pyne’s big policy agenda rammed down their throats.

      • And sensibly rejected by the Senate !

        Pyne, if anybody, should understand that regardless of how insistent that big throbbing policy idea is getting, you don’t surprise the voters in a dark alley and force it onto them. You’ve got to take invite them out on a few dates at least, warm them up, telegraph your intentions. Admittedly, a ruddy faced mincing creep like Pyne has to reconcile himself to rejection most of the time despite his best efforts. But a personality defect and a sluggish intellect is no excuse for attempted rape of the country’s student body.

      • I’m sure there will be scholarships for the able. Awarded on merit regardless of demographic. PMs daughter or brickie’s son. Opportunity exists.

      • This has got nothing to do with ‘Opportunity’ – the doors to University have been open in this country for a very long time for all who are able. This is primarily about dividing up the bill. And a bunch of smug, over-fed, small-minded neo-liberals deciding the kids should be given a credit card to pay for their own Happy meals.

      • And the doors will remain open. To those who secure a scholarship or stipend; and those prepared to pay.

        Universities will diverge – one group offering low cost polytechnic style education, the other group will model themselves on august global institutions. Different strokes for different folks.

        Back to the future.

      • So, same as it ever was then. All about who foots the bill. Moot point anyway. Senate has rejected. Even if it is somehow negotiated through next year, it will never stand. This is a gift to the Opposition. Policy was never canvassed, and completely contradicts Abbott’s own promise to maintain status quo in education. Labor will campaign on a platform of the LNP’s Big Lie and overturning the Big Education Debt Impost on Your Kids, and win. Only the Adelaide elite could love Christopher Pyne, and pretty much no-one likes Abbott anymore. All over for Tone’s rendition of Team Australia (the Honorary Doctorate from the Whitehouse School of Design should be some consolation for him in his later years).

      • I’m sure there will be scholarships for the able. Awarded on merit regardless of demographic.

        How is that not the definition of HECS ?

    • @spleenblatt — +1

      Professor Stephen Parker deserves the highest accolades for speaking out against the majority of wankers in his Profession. His speech hopefully will be game over for Abbott & the a$$hole Pyne.

  2. My guess is that the good professor has figured out that his university will end up a loser in the process. Which it might – the University of Canberra has not got the brand name that will allow a steep rise in fees to offset the funding cuts.

    • Suspect that no universities with a brand name like that exist outside Go8 – and even in Go8 at least a couple are deceiving themselves.

      Professor Parker probably isn’t surprised that the current VC’s at Melbourne or Sydney U have kept quiet, but his surprise is probably warranted that not a single Australian university VC sees a threat worth fighting here.

      • …his surprise is probably warranted that not a single Australian university VC sees a threat worth fighting here.

        No doubt a blend of ambition/self interest and fear of reprisal is to blame in this respect.

      • I think if you’re on the small side or perhaps a slightly newer entrant, self-interest ought to be synonymous with self-preservation.

        Hence fear of being ostracized or missing the brand leverage boat should be way down the list compared to doing everything you can to make sure your institution still exists after 2015.

        Half the point is to thin the ranks of such institutions or at least encourage takeovers by bigger players.

        Certainly if ‘ambition’ is a driver for a lower tier capital city uni or virtually any regional uni, those VCs have got their hand on it.

  3. The changes to tertiary education are another part of the New Elite Consensus designed to entrench inequality of wealth and to wind back equal opportunity.

    In his recent book on Capital, economist Thomas Piketty noted the return to entrenched wealth which has taken place since about 1970 as the Elite move to restore their historical privileges.

    It is noteworthy that Piketty’s estimates excluded the value of slaves from the definition of capital on the grounds that ownership of human beings was prohibited.

    What is not prevented, however, is the creation of “indentured workers” whose debts are so great that they can never realistically be paid off.

    The new tertiary funding proposal aims to achieve just that – the creation of an indentured workforce that is forever indebted to private capitalists.

    With the exception of a few scholarship winners (and even that is likely to be gamed by the Elite as time goes by) the only people able to gain elite tertiary qualifications and access to economic rents that generally go with such qualifications will be:

    a) those whose parents can afford to pay the capital cost up-front; and

    b) those who are prepared to become indentured, possibly for life.

    We have already seen in the United States ( how indentured workers may never be able to get out from under.

    The New Elite Consensus aims at destroying every aspect of the Modern Era:

    – egalitarianism, in favour of the restoration of entrenched wealth;

    – effective democracy, in favour of the corrupt system of elective government and “money politics”; and

    – local and national self-determination, in favour of undemocratic and unaccountable supranational institutions (such as the EU and the various “free-trade” agreements) which enforce elite interests even against national governments.

    • Once again, you nailed it Stephen.

      What a disgraceful way to treat our young people as they look to complete what is widely regarded as the expected level of education these days.

    • Well said.

      It does seem as if we’re sleepwalking into this dystopian future.

      Honestly, as Parker mentioned, Australia needs to wake up.

      And quickly.

  4. I sent him this email in appreciation………

    Dear Professor Parker,

    I congratulate you on your recent speech highlighting the impending destruction of our
    university system, one that is unfair to our students and poor policy, an
    Amercanisation that will lead students into a generation of debt servitude.

    I was fortunate enough to have been born in 1962 – I benefited from FREE education –
    and I understand the leg up this gave me in early life. I cannot understand how
    politicians from my generation can with clear conscience make a decision that is so
    unfair and unjust.

    Australia is a rich and prosperous nation but one that has and continues to squander
    its endowment with poor policy and a misdirection of funds. How can our politicians not
    see that investing in the education of our next generation will benefit us all in the

    This short sighted government (and the former was no better) seeks to burden our youth
    for the enrichment of my generation through tight mean-spirited policy while continuing
    to provide disproportional largesse to themselves and those lucky enough to have been
    born into period of unprecedented growth.

    Who do they think will be paying for the pension, medical expenses and other benefits
    we seek to enjoy in the latter stages of our lives. Those same people we burden with a
    lifetime of student debts and outrageous mortgages fostered onto them by a greedy

    Germany is showing Australia the way – what a shame we don’t have the same vision for
    our generation of students.

    Thanks again for your courage of conviction.

  5. I have a couple of daughters who wanted to study in Thailand at ABAC (an English speaking university). we agreed and after paying the uni fees, cost of accommodation and other living costs we find it is no more than if we were to assist them by paying for the cost of accommodation and food in Australia.

    The advantage they will have is that once they graduate they can do a Master’s Degree in Australia and have only a small HECS penalty to pay into the future.

    • It will become more natural for Oz kids to study abroad for the experience and lower fees/cost of living (at least do a study abroad semester). European unis, especially northern and central, much the same, tuition through English, basic degrees BA, BBus etc. $5-6000 p.a. + $12,000 living costs…….

      I am not sure whether Germany will retain no fee policy, as like elsewhere, they have competing interests for the state dollar, including ageing and decreasing population with increasing pension and health requirements……

      In parallel Germany is trying to encourage more youth to do technical training, after which they can actually find employment.

      As important, is it useful to have high school grads diving straight into university study (following friends and keeping parents happy) without life experience and a clear idea of where they want to be in future?

  6. In a way, the silence of the unis, even the small ones, is not surprising. If the Senate votes down the reforms, the government out of vindictiveness might still cut back on the university funding.

    The unis might figure that the best chance of this not happening is to support the government.

    Does anyone think that Christopher Pyne would not act vindictively if he had the chance? Small minded petty, spiteful vindictiveness is hard coded into the man’s DNA.

    • Yep, our political parties are increasingly silencing advocates of politically unpalatable points of view all across the community and public sector. Thou shalt first Control the Narrative.

    • Agree, but still think if your ‘Repute’ score in 3d1k’s table isn’t too flash, then ‘going down swinging’ may prove to be close to your only option.

  7. Funny that you describe Christopher Pyne as a man. He’s always represented the archetypal snotty nosed private school boy in my mind. Despite the fact that he’s probably in his 50’s now.

  8. The Senate slapped down the bill. And took a dump down Pyne’s throat.

    He gargled a bit. Then said he’ll be back for more after Christmas.

    Go Pyne!

    Chin up champ!