Labor locks in new higher education policy

Labor is making a pledge for more university funding and cheaper courses – its first challenge to the Turnbull Government, writes Sarah Webb.

Labor has given Malcolm Turnbull an immediate policy fight – promising to use legislation to lock in its plan to sustain funding increases for university students in what was on Monday described as an important “line in the sand”.

Labor’s new plan promises a big boost in university funding, providing cheaper courses and wants more tertiary students to complete their degrees. The Opposition’s plan would increase funding by $2.5 billion over four years and induce universities to ensure higher rates of completion.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten released the policy on Monday, 21 September at Monash University.

“To ensure the value of this investment is protected over time, not eroded, Labor will ensure [per student funding] is indexed and sustainable into the future,” Mr Shorten told students at the University.

Warned by a student that Labor was losing votes to the Greens, Mr Shorten said the higher education policy showed that Labor was “making a swing towards young people”.

In contrast to the Government’s plan for deregulating fees, the Labor plan focuses on tighter rules and it aims to cut the drop-out rate so that 20,000 more students each year can actually finish their degrees. At the moment, there are one in four students who are not completing after eight years at university.

Higher education has been an issue for the Government with the Senate rejecting its plan for fee deregulation. Therefore, Labor is promising to increase per student funding by about $2500 from 2018.

By 2018, a Labor government would pay on average $11,800 per year per undergraduate student – 27 per cent more per student than the Liberals’ as yet unlegislated plan. This increase would therefore mean that on average, a Labor government would invest $9,000 more per student over the next decade in a so-called “student funding guarantee”.

Labor’s higher education spokesman, Kim Carr, told the ABC that would remove the need for higher fees and would provide certainty for universities across Australia.

“It would mean significantly cheaper courses than the Government’s policy,” Senator Carr said.

“In density, the cost of a degree under Labor would be $52,000, under Mr Turnbull it will be $148,000.”

It results in students ending up with debts and no degree, and Labor would have a higher education commission to ensure the increased government funding delivers better results.

Labor’s commitment to lock in funding increase was welcomed by the peak body, Universities Australia, but noted it would simply restore funding largely to where it would have been without the unlegislated cuts proposed in 2013 by Labor and last year by the Abbott government.

However, Monash University Vice-Chancellor, Margaret Gardner, said it is a very important “line in the sand” in the higher education policy debate.

“We had no options on the table until now that signalled greater investment by the government,” Ms Gardner said.

Labor’s commitment would be an important policy signal, setting a baseline for what is needed to sustain tertiary education.

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