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September 16, 2013 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

The McCourt Report

On fees and why this University needs to stand up to Steven Joyce:

Fee-setting feels like a play. We all have our roles, we say our bit, and the conclusion was always already written. On Monday, our University Council will set fees for 2014. To no-one’s surprise, Management has recommended a four-per-cent rise—the maximum increase allowed by the Government. The same four per cent they demand every year. International fees will go up even more.

Victoria dropped from 237th to 265th-equal in the QS Rankings last week. The relative drop is concerning for the reputation of the University and value of our degrees. In all likelihood, Council will accept the four-per-cent domestic recommendation, and the suite of higher international fees, increasing the fee take by $2.3m and $3.5m, respectively.

Until the Clark Government came to power, fee rises were out of control. There was a brief period of freezes until the introduction of the Fee Maxima policy. In 2007, when the Government allowed unis to charge up to five-per-cent increases, Green MP Nandor Tanczos predicted that the move “effectively locked in perpetual fee increases.” Was he right? Sadly, yes. What was supposed to be ceiling has become a floor, a way for councils to ignore their low-quality spending and simply go for more revenue from a source with very little choice but to front up with the cash—us.

The lazy five per cent was replaced by the National Government’s AMFM four per cent in 2011, with exemptions to go to eight per cent. The exemptions have become much harder to obtain, which is good. Last year Vic was slapped down for having the gall to ask for an eight-per-cent rise in Humanities and Education fees to ‘help Māori and Pasifika learning’— despite a lack of a plan about how to do that, and the fact the research shows that Māori and Pasifika families are more likely to be turned off from tertiary education due to higher fees.

Anyway, back to the four per cent. The floor/ceiling was a real problem for students and their associations at first—that was until the National Government’s chronic underfunding of universities had become so diabolical that the institution is now clearly dependent on the two per cent of the student tuition fee component to keep up with inflation (0.7 per cent), staff increases (around two per cent from the collective agreement) and depreciation costs.

Universities are winging for this four-per-cent ceiling to be lifted so that they can raise our fees to be more equal with each other. Vic’s Humanities fees are some of the lowest in the country, which Management sees as a weakness. VUWSA would say phooey to that: there’s no good reason to be in the middle of an overpriced pack.

So what is Government underfunding doing, besides making unis keen to go bananas on fee rises? Well, it’s stealthily increasing the private contribution towards our educations while reducing the state’s.

The secret got out recently when a Treasury paper let slip:

“By making provision for annual four-per-cent increases in student fees, we have offset the impact of cost pressures for providers while shifting the incidence of cost… Over time, this has shifted from Government funding 74 per cent of these costs in 2004 to a projected 70 per cent in 2013.”

You might say 70-per-cent state contribution for domestic students is still pretty decent. But compared to what?

Australia and the US are both putting in more funding per student. The UK is the notable exception to this drive in investment—and they suffered in the rankings.

So it’s not a case of ‘we don’t know how lucky we are’. It’s about whether we believe that education is a good thing—just a cost, or a real opportunity.

In New Zealand society, we socialise all kinds of costs. We socialise health costs for individuals, we socialise fire services and earthquake assistance, and we socialise the police. Sure, these things have social benefits. But they also have private benefits. For example, when a shop owner’s window is broken, preventing them from trading and turning a profit, the police investigate the matter without making the shopkeeper write out a cheque. Why? Because as New Zealanders we think that security and justice are good things, and we are prepared to socialise those costs to make our country a better place.

I guess why I’m frustrated with the perpetual fee rises that are increasingly not enough to bridge the funding gap is because the universities themselves have not been challenging the Government over their deliberate shortchanging. I think it’s an absolute scandal that after four years of no new funding, and the last two years with not even money to cover inflation, our institutions have said little publicly. I was talking to a senior figure at another university recently who admitted their strategy of silence was a big mistake.

Well, it’s never too late. I think it’s time that our universities found a backbone and stood up against underfunding.

Finally, the Council paper refers to the fact the international student ‘numbers’.

The way this University, and the sector generally, talks about international students is concerning. It’s clear that any regard for the quality of education, teaching and learning or research that might be enriched (or reduced) by additional international students takes a back seat. Instead, these students—these people—become “Chinese numbers” or “Malaysian numbers”; “Full fee-paying revenue”, rather than learners or scholars.

Like with many things in this once-great academic institution, we now know the price of international students, but not the value. Blinded by a market-driven commercialism, the exchange rate is more important to our university’s leaders than the exchange of ideas.

Until our VC can prove there’s been a four-per-cent increase in quality, or that they’ve found some spines and actually put up a fight against underfunding, or that they see international students as more than just cash-cows, and importantly: that they research the impact of a rise on students: I will be voting against the rise.

Four per cent does not deserve an encore.


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