Message to staff and students from the Vice-Chancellor: federal budget update

12 June 2014

I write to update you on our work on the higher education reforms proposed by the Australian Government in its budget.

First, I should respond to an unfortunate aspect of the higher education debate as it has been conducted in the media. Some universities and other commentators have claimed that older universities with excellent research capacity are not just elite, but elitist. In reality, nothing is further from the truth.It is true that some of our students have privileged backgrounds, but it is also true that most of our domestic offers go to applicants from middle-income suburbs.We are a place for the finest minds wherever they live.

The University of Sydney was founded on the principle that academic merit alone, regardless of religious beliefs or social class, would be the test for admission. In the 1880s we were among the first universities in the world to admit women on the same basis as men. Our founders recognised the power of education to change society and we hold that belief just as strongly today. It is with these beliefs in mind that we approach any change in the policy and funding environment.

Second, since my last email I have been active in the media arguing for several measures to be fairer. I have restated my support for fee deregulation, because those with the ability to pay should not be subsidised by those who cannot. Universities are also better able to balance quality and access than government bureaucrats.I have also argued strongly for a more generous scholarship regime to ensure that those from middle-income families, not just those from formally identified disadvantaged groups, continue to see a University of Sydney education as an attainable goal. You can read more about my views in this Sydney Morning Herald opinion piece.

Third, we have also, privately and publicly, lobbied the government to look at the terms of the proposed loan scheme with the aim of making it more affordable. You will be aware that the government has proposed reducing the income level at which students must start to repay their loans, changing when they must start repayments, and adjusting the basis for calculating interest on their loans. I am very concerned about the impact of the repayment threshold on our students' capacity to take on important, but lower-paying jobs, and also on women.

Fourth, we have urged the government to drop its plans to deregulate fees for students studying higher degrees by research. Given we are not sure what the impact of fee deregulation will be on demand, we are very concerned about the impact of these changes on higher degrees by research, in particular on Australia's capacity to produce a world-class research workforce.

I have reason to believe that the government is taking these concerns seriously, though we are unlikely to see any movement in the government's position before the relevant legislation goes to the Senate in July.

Fifth, in the meantime, we are discussing the principles that might govern our response to fee deregulation and the $65 million cut in funding that the government's budget imposes. I will be in touch over the next few weeks to outline how this conversation will be continued with the University community, including arrangements for consultation with the student representative organisations. One thing is clear: if we are to have new fee arrangements for 2016, we need to be in a position to announce those arrangements before the January 2015 Info Day. Any other timetable would be unfair to prospective students.

I will continue to keep you informed about our efforts to influence these reforms, and our actions to ensure we are ready for whatever emerges from the Australian Parliament.

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