Questions as report predicts student loan cost blowout

How to pay for university fees is shaping up as another key election debate.

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Amid debate around the commonwealth student loans program, one university Vice-Chancellor is questioning the federal government’s post-election plans for education.

Protesters at Sydney University clashed with police as federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham arrived for an event.

Appearing at another university, Mr Birmingham played down the incident.

“I feel safe wherever I go on Australia’s university campuses, in Australia’s schools. I have fabulous engagement with academics, researchers, students, teachers.”

A report by the Parliamentary Budget Office has predicted an explosion in the total value of government lending to tertiary students – from $60 billion now, to $185 billion in a decade.

It says both the Gillard Labor government’s removal of university enrolment limits, extending the Higher Education Loan Program to vocational courses, as well as the coalition’s fiercely unpopular plans to deregulate university fees are to blame for the forecasts.

Going into an election, the federal government had flagged proposals for changes to the way student loans are repaid.

Education Minister Simon Birmingham says the government wants to ensure the loans scheme is sustainable.

“We don’t charge students a cent up front. We don’t make them repay until they’re earning around $54,000 and we don’t charge any real interest on those debts. Ours is a generous, accessible, and equitable university access system. I’m committed to keeping it generous, accessible, and equitable, but also determined to make sure that it’s affordable for the long-term.”

The federal opposition leader Bill Shorten says despite defeat in the Senate, the government’s policy remains that universities should be able to charge students uncapped fees.

“It is not reform to treat education, higher education as a cost. Because of the government’s deregulation plans, because of their massive cuts to universities, we are seeing Australia’s university students and their families being cast into Titanic debt. Why is it this government always makes life harder for young people? Their only vision for higher education is to transfer problems from the government balance sheet onto individuals debt in the future.”

University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor Stephen Parker is staunchly opposed to fee deregulation.

He used an outgoing graduation address to question government policy.

“Just before the last election the previous prime minister announced there would be no cuts to education — a promise which he attempted to break within months. The question will now arise, how can anyone believe a cut will only be 20 per cent if the government is returned to power? Why wouldn’t it be 40 per cent or more? That’s the promise with breaches of promise, the replacement promises aren’t believed.”

The Education Minister has released a review into university entrance requirements, saying he’s listened to concerns that the system is confusing.

“It’s critical that students have transparency about what it is that universities expect of them to be admitted to university. That students understand what it is that will be required of them to succeed at university and that universities are held accountable for the types of standards they are applying in the students they admit.”

Labor, meanwhile, is running hard on the prime minister’s failed push to allow states and territories to levy a portion of income tax, and take over funding of public services including schools.

Opposition Education spokeswoman Kate Ellis says Labor is determined to continue federal funding of education.

“We will make sure that every teacher that every student and that every parent is very clear when it comes to the next election just how reckless Malcolm Turnbull’s plan is.”

But Mr Birmingham says Labor doesn’t have the money to pay for its school promises, unlike the Coalition.

“Of course the truth is we’re committed to growing funding in schools, to having the funding support for universities to achieve world class excellence and supporting students to go to university without paying one cent upfront.”