By Thomas

The recently released budget plans of the Australian government have been heavily debated over the last few weeks. I will not bother you with my (general) opinion about the budget (or the current government) as

a.)  People, more skilled in writing, can do that much better.

b.)  This blog should be mainly about Research and PhD student life and not political issues.

c.)   I don`t feel like driving my blood pressure too high today.

What I want to talk about is something that is affected by the budget and makes a crucial impact on (PhD) student lives as well: The price of education.

Before I discuss this, I just find it fair to give you some information about me, that can help you to understand where my viewpoint is coming from and where my opinion might be biased the one way or the other:

I`m from Germany and received my whole education (before starting a PhD) there. That means, in a country where education (yes, even studying) is generally free (of cost!) for everyone. Of course, there are problems with the german education system as well, but the basic idea that education should be free to everyone is something that I feel very strong about.1
At the moment I`m in a PhD program at ANU, and this is only thanks to Australian scholarships that cover my university fees and living costs. And I`m deeply grateful for this opportunity.

Now, you might think that the latter point might have told me the lesson, that (in theory) in a system, where students have to pay a fee for studying, everyone can study (through credits, scholarships, savings) regardless of their financial starting situation. And that therefore these systems are as good as non-fee university systems.

I agree that this statement would be true, in a perfect world, where every student has either enough savings, can get a scholarship or has no problem to get and to pay off their student loan.

I yet haven’t been convinced we live in such a world.

Even if, it would still make a difference for someone who thinks about studying, if they have to take the financial risk of a student loan (or burning a big hole in their savings) into account, or whether they don`t have to bother about that.

Anyway, I actually don`t want to discuss the pros and cons of fee and non-fee education systems here. I can see why a fee-system is very attractive for Australia with all those cash cows around, ready to milk. These cash cows being countries (e.g. China, Chile) who (more or less) happily pay the fees to send their students to esteemed Universities in Australia.

For me this shows the mind-set behind the fee-system: Education as a business.

If, at least, this system would provide solid funding for the education of domestic students. They`ll probably going to need more support when the university fees start to skyrocket

And that is what baffles me the most – exemplified in comments like this from the ANU`s Vice-Chancellors Blog:

“At present, the student contribution to their education is fixed by the Commonwealth and varies by discipline. From 2016 universities will be able to set the amount of the student contribution. There will be no cap on this amount provided it does not exceed the amount which the University charges international students in that same discipline.”

That`s a thing that won’t go in my head: The goal of a university fee is that the students pay for their education, right? Or did I misunderstand the concept? Now, shouldn`t that mean, that your own students should only pay what their education costs? That one charges more to foreign students, okay, that`s the “Edcuation is a business” approach. But your own students – they are an investment in the countries future.

But now it can happen that domestic students have to pay the same as foreign students. In my opinion that will mean one thing:

They`ll pay more for their education than it costs!

Where will that surplus of money end up?

Presumably in the other area, universities are there for: Research2.

Don`t get me wrong: More money for Research? Superb!.

But I think it should come from the institutions (e.g. the state or companies) that are interested in the results.

I can follow the internal logic of a system where you require students to pay for their education (even though I personally don`t think it`s the best solution).

What I can`t, is to see the rationale behind what (I think) is looming at the horizon:

A system where students have to subsidize research, because the government doesn`t want too fund it properly!


1 And apparently I`m not the only one who feels that way.

2 Of course not directly. But there are a lot of things in a university that are needed for education and research as well (e.g. infrastructure, staff). If you assign a bigger amount of money for these basic costs to the education sector you effectivly subsidize the research sector of the university. I could be wrong with that, so if someone knows more about where this surplus of money is going to go, please share that information in the comments.