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Big shifts are on the way in Australian higher education. The announcements recently made by the government indicate wide deregulation in the higher education system as of 2016. The government plans to make cuts in degree funding by an average of 20%, to uncap tuitions, and to extend support to students at private universities and TAFEs (Technical and Further Education institutes). According to Australian decision-makers, such changes are to bring multiple benefits to country’s higher education - from boosting innovation, to expanding study options for students and enhancing the quality of research and teaching.
In an interview of 15 May for Radio National, Minister of Education Christopher Pyne said that such policy would allow 80 000 more students to study and “benefit from a massive expansion of the opportunity to get skills and education”. Encouraging competition between public and private universities in the country is to diversify higher education and ensure excellence at universities both in research and teaching. Another reason behind the government’s strategy is international competitiveness. Higher education comprises 2/3 of education exports and represents Australia’s fourth largest export area. With this in mind, the government is apprehensive of a decline in higher education in the country due to the rise of Asian universities in international rankings and international higher education arena, claims Minister Pyne.
Students have met new regulations with strong disapproval and protests in all bigger cities in the country. In their view, the government’s decision is a move towards the US-like style that can only leave students worse off. With complete freedom to decide on tuition fees, the expectation is that universities – the elite ones at least – will increase tuitions by thousands of dollars in order to become more competitive internationally. At the same time, the government will reduce the minimum income level for paying back the loan from AD 53 000 to AD 50 000 and introduce real interest rates of up to 6%. For the government, this is to ensure a more sustainable loan system. However, this also means that the student loan debt may increase and remain unpaid for much longer periods of time than it is the case now, creating even a bigger financial burden for students and their families.