Global Rankings Report Questions Whether Fee Deregulation Will Create An Underclass In Australia's University Education

    Plans to deregulate fees at Australian universities may have a polarising effect for students and the institutions themselves, an annual global survey of tertiary education has warned.

    While the best will thrive, lesser universities may sink lower, the report speculates.

    Eight Australian universities made it into the top 200 of the Times Higher Education 2014-2015 World University Rankings, but after praising Australia’s notable leap in global standings, the rankings report said:

    “The big question, as Australia moves into a period of radical reform with the full deregulation of tuition fees, is whether this admirable strength-in-depth can be maintained.

    The reforms may help a small Australian elite protect or even improve their global standing, but what about the rest?

    Are we going to see a greater polarisation in Australia between a global super-elite and a large number of also-rans declining?”

    The rankings report also revealed “Australia does not have just a few world-class universities, but a world-class system”, with a further 12 universities making the 200-400 category.

    Despite the advancement, Asia managed to eclipse Australia’s performance with three times as many universities (24 in total) in the top 200.

    Federal education minister Christopher Pyne said Asia’s dominance reinforced the need for proposed higher education reforms in Australia, the AFR reported.

    “The Times rankings are a clarion call to the Senate to support the Government’s higher education changes or risk condemning our universities to a slow decline,” he said.

    National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) president Jeannie Rae said the Government’s plans to deregulate fees may enhance competition for some of Australia’s more elite tertiary institutions but may cause big problems for the rest, the ABC reported.

    Rae said the majority of universities will “struggle to find a fee rate that students and their families can afford to pay”.

    “So we will be looking at probably some places doing very well but others doing more and more poorly, and they’re the ones that educate the majority of Australians,” she said.

    The Australian reported that while plans to impose a real interest rate on student loans may be stamped out, concerns that increasing student debts would become a fiscally unsustainable problem for the Government persist.

    Grattan Institute policy expert Andrew Norton stressed that “if the Government is going to be lending vast sums of money that won’t be repaid, then this is going to be a fairly serious budget issue”.

    Regional University Network (RUN) chairman Professor Peter Lee said changes to fees was the way forward but warned against reducing Commonwealth grant scheme funding.

    “In combination, a reduction in government funding and real interest rate on loans will have a disproportionate impact on the regional and disadvantaged students who study at RUN universities, as well as the communities from which they come,” he said.

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