Opinion Editorial:Simon Birmingham's reform agenda is creating uncertainty for HSC students

17 Oct 2017

Simon Birmingham's reform agenda is creating uncertainty for HSC students

published 17 October 2017

By Michael Spence

With the Higher School Certificate written exams starting this week and the Senate in Canberra poised to debate major higher education reforms, this is a pivotal week for school leavers and universities.

Year 12 is always a stressful time for students and their families but now there is added pressure because of the uncertainty facing universities.

The government's reform package, if passed, will not only increase student fees but means universities will receive less funding for each student they enrol.

At the University of Sydney, we estimate a cut of at least $50 million over the next four years. This will reduce our capacity to invest in the quality of our courses and student support services. Without changes to the reform Bill, we will be forced to close two nursing courses we have been delivering successfully for more than a decade. Students who graduate from these programs achieve excellent employment outcomes and are a valuable asset to our health system.

The reforms also place the future of diploma-level language programs in jeopardy. We have offered ours for more than 20 years. Students typically study a language diploma alongside a bachelor or master degree to boost their skills and employability. Popular languages include Mandarin, Japanese and Korean. Australia's future hinges on its ability to trade and interact with Asia. It is baffling that the same government that introduced the New Colombo Plan to better engage with the region, is putting the future of these vital language programs at risk.

Another issue is that in the current uncertain environment we can't offer students starting in 2018 guaranteed Commonwealth-supported places for programs that provide pathways to postgraduate qualifications in any fields other than medicine.

The government is now asking those students to accept places for next year, then gamble that down the track they will win a scholarship for the postgraduate component of their studies under a scheme for which no details are currently available. Students who fail to win a scholarship will only be able to complete their studies by paying full fees.

There are just four Senate sitting weeks remaining this year. Minister Simon Birmingham needs the votes of 10 of the 12 Senate crossbenchers to pass his Bill. The High Court's deliberations over the constitutional validity of various MPs and senators, and Nick Xenophon's announcement that he will leave the Senate, have added unpredictability to an already messy state of affairs.

It is impossible for students or universities to plan for 2018 and beyond when faced with so many unknowns. School leavers seeking university places for next year had to start making decisions well before the government announced its reforms in May. Some students selected high school subjects in Year 10 based on the entry requirement for their favoured university courses. They are having the ground rules changed on them retrospectively. Universities, too, are in the dark. In our case, we have had to postpone our usual timetable for offers in possibly affected courses. We await advice from the government about its intentions whether its reform plans become law or not.

reforms also place the future of diploma-level language programs in jeopardy. We have offered ours for more than 20 years. Students typically study a language diploma alongside a bachelor or master degree to boost their skills and employability. Popular languages include Mandarin, Japanese and Korean. Australia's future hinges on its ability to trade and interact with Asia. It is baffling that the same government that introduced the New Colombo Plan to better engage with the region, is putting the future of these vital language programs at risk.

Another issue is that in the current uncertain environment we can't offer students starting in 2018 guaranteed Commonwealth-supported places for programs that provide pathways to postgraduate qualifications in any fields other than medicine.

The government is now asking those students to accept places for next year, then gamble that down the track they will win a scholarship for the postgraduate component of their studies under a scheme for which no details are currently available. Students who fail to win a scholarship will only be able to complete their studies by paying full fees.

There are just four Senate sitting weeks remaining this year. Minister Simon Birmingham needs the votes of 10 of the 12 Senate crossbenchers to pass his Bill. The High Court's deliberations over the constitutional validity of various MPs and senators, and Nick Xenophon's announcement that he will leave the Senate, have added unpredictability to an already messy state of affairs.

It is impossible for students or universities to plan for 2018 and beyond when faced with so many unknowns. School leavers seeking university places for next year had to start making decisions well before the government announced its reforms in May. Some students selected high school subjects in Year 10 based on the entry requirement for their favoured university courses. They are having the ground rules changed on them retrospectively. Universities, too, are in the dark. In our case, we have had to postpone our usual timetable for offers in possibly affected courses. We await advice from the government about its intentions whether its reform plans become law or not.

I hope the Senate sends a clear message to the government that its higher education reform package is not acceptable. Whatever the outcome in Parliament, for the sake of students sitting the HSC, it is time to give them and universities certainty so they can make plans for the fast-approaching 2018 academic year. The very least the government could do is announce a one-year delay in the start date of any planned reforms, with students commencing in affected courses in 2018 exempted from any changes that are introduced during their studies.

Dr Michael Spence is the vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney.