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Byron Shire
January 26, 2022

Regional students unfairly hit by fee hikes

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A long time ago my husband had to attend a meeting in Redfern. He works in the health and academic sector and it was a consultation with some First Nations clinicians and community workers. He arrived a little earlier for the meeting to the centre – not your typical clinical setting but a regular house. On arrival he was greeted by an older woman who led him to a table and offered him a cup of tea. They chatted. Had a laugh. She offered him a biscuit.

Professor Marcia Devlin, deputy vice-chancellor (Learning and Quality) at Federation University Australia. Photo Federation University
Professor Marcia Devlin, deputy vice-chancellor (Learning and Quality) at Federation University Australia. Photo Federation University

The deputy vice-chancellor of one of Australia’s regional universities has hit out at the federal government’s tertiary sector budget cuts and student fee increases.

Professor Marcia Devlin, of Federation University Australia, based near Ballarat in Victoria, said that many students were already under financial strain and it was likely far fewer would undertake studies if they had to pay increased fees.

She added the budget cuts and fee hikes would unfairly impact students from regional areas and those from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds.

Professor Devlin said it was ‘contradictory to say that you want a rapidly evolving economy, underpinned by innovation, and then to pull back on one of the key drivers, which is access to and participation and success at university.’

‘If you want to change the economy to one that is innovative and based on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), then you need an educated, upskilled workforce and this will be hampered if student fees increase,’ she said.

Support regional students

‘If we want rural and regional areas to grow and flourish, then we need to support rural and regional students – allowing them to access and participate successfully in university – not hit them with larger debts that they have to pay back sooner.

‘Our study showed there are many rural and regional students who are already in dire straits and forced to postpone or go slow on their studies for financial reasons. Sometimes they are forced to leave their studies altogether.

‘Student told us ‘I don’t have enough money to cover rent and food’, ‘sometimes I can’t even get to uni because I have no money on my transport card’.  They told us of ‘living in a car’ and of needing to work ‘40 hours a week and still doing full time uni’.’

The higher education reform package released last night also proposes performance funding for universities on the basis of improved retention.

‘The assumption here is that universities don’t do enough to support students and that this will provide the necessary incentive to do more. My University is in the top three in the country in terms of student support as measured by the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching yet it also has a high attrition rate. It’s not always about universities doing more, it’s often about students having financial stability,’ Professor Devlin said.

More difficult for regional unis

Prof Devlin co-authored with Dr Jade McKay the federally-funded report, Facilitating Success for Students from Low SES Backgrounds at Regional Universities, 

The report recommends changes to income support and the availability of scholarships for regional students.

‘Adjustments to income support policy, providing scholarships and retaining and enhancing the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) would help students from low SES backgrounds and those studying at regional universities to continue their studies,’ Prof Devlin said.

Prof Devlin added she was relieved that there was a proposal to retain HEPPP but was unsure whether the per-student allocation would make it more difficult for regional universities to deliver existing outreach and support services.

‘Regional universities, through helping students develop innovative capabilities, play a leading role in contributing to their regional economies and communities that are home to almost one third of Australia’s population,’ Prof Devlin said.

 


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