University Enrolls First (Fee-Paying) Drover’s Dog

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that UTS, Sydney’s University of Technology, has introduced a lower entry score for applicants who are able to pay full fees up-front. Coincidentally, I had an interesting chat with an older feller last night at the local.

It seems he used to be Press Secretary for John Dawkins (Education Minister in the Labor Government (1987-91) amongst other posts). Dawkins, if you recall, introduced the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) as well as disposing of an entire tier of tertiary education, amalgamating College’s of Advanced Education into tin-pot universities.

This fellow’s view was that Dawkins had laid the groundwork for the destruction of Australia’s once excellent tertiary education sector, work joyfully carried on by the Howard government who, no doubt, would like Australia’s universities to return to the pre-Whitlam days when only the ‘right sort of people’ attended and the great unwashed settled for a trade or working for a bank if they were lucky.

This trend continues apace, with Universities being screwed for funds and, in their scramble to obtain sufficient income to operate, becoming ever more mercenary in the setting of course fees. Graduates of some courses these days will have paid over $100,000 for the pleasure.

The Whitlam Labor Government, so fondly remembered by some and so scorned by others, introduced free tertiary education in the early seventies, the idea being that with the widest possible pool of applicants, Australia’s universities would be stocked with the best and brightest around the land.

While that might eventually have been the case, by the late eighties the perception in the Hawke government was that, while fewer financial impediments stood in the way of lower-income applicants, the aspiration to attend uni remained largely an upper class affair and therefore the whole country was paying for the betterment of a select few. Enter HECS, initially a modest and partial fee paying structure, with fees payable post-graduation and only when income passed a reasonable threshold.

Critics at the time argued that the thought of wracking up a HECS debt was enough to deter lower income applicants. It was also argued that HECS as it stood represented the thin end of the wedge, that course costs would incrementally increase and that income thresholds would stagnate until we would have the equivalent of a private university system once more.

Those fears have largely come to pass, accelerating in the last ten years as the universities, with Howard’s boot on their funding throats, clamour for reduced regulation of their fee structures.

But what of standards? Are the best and brightest young Aussies aspiring to go to university? This was the other criticism of the Dawkins reforms, that they would lead to a lowering of standards in universities. Clearly there are now serious financial disincentives for lower-income people considering tertiary study. In recent decades, how many brilliant young minds have spurned an academic career in favour of lesser pursuits?

While there is room for debate on the extent, so far, of these negative consequences, the introduction of lower entry scores for fee-payers by UTS leaves no doubt that our universities will once again become the playground of the wealthy. We can expect to see the difference between the entry requirements of HECS versus fee-paying students increase until any bloody moron with enough money (think George Bush) can go to uni and the HECS students, well who needs ‘em?

We all lose.

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