On Ian Young on Deregulation

Ian Young – ANU VC and head of the Group of 8 elite universities – first championed student fee deregulation as the only way to turn ANU into Australia’s own Harvard. Now, in “Survival of the Deregulated”, he takes another tack.

Decades of voter neglect have led governments to squeeze universities: “Universities are expanding rapidly with fewer dollars per student.” Meanwhile costs to government have soared, leaving no one happy.

Deregulation is the “lifeline” and he is the hard headed pragmatist. Except that the argument is full of holes. It’s true as he says that government funding per student fell between 1997 and 2012. But much of this was cost shifting from governments to student fees, leaving universities no worse off. Some was due to indexing of government grants below inflation, leading to a slow erosion of government funding. But in 2012 government funding was indexed to relevant wage inflation. So funding per student is stable under the current system. Is that “unsustainable”?

Maybe Young meant the rising costs to government are unsustainable, politically? But that concedes too much even on his own terms. If rising HELP debt is unsustainable, what does he think is going to happen once university fees are uncapped?

Finally, it’s just not true that deregulation is the only response available to government plans to slash funding for higher education. Fees could remain regulated but take up the reduction in subsidy — not ideal if you think education is a public good, but still far from dangerous aspirations for the “US model”.

Or better, fees could be regulated at the cost of providing the student’s education, after subsidy. As Ian Young himself has said, universities already over-charge their students to plump up their research funds. Surely that’s not why the elite research universities now want to be able to charge whatever they want?

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