POLITICS and the cross-party obsession with cutting debt mean the recent review into base funding could be stillborn, a seminar of sector luminaries was warned.
While Tertiary Education Minister Chris Evans has said he will respond to the review this year, there are doubts as to whether he will have the resources to make any significant response.
At the same time, several vice-chancellors have continued to talk up fee deregulation in expectation of an Abbott-led Coalition government, challenging the relevance of the review.
Melbourne University higher education expert Simon Marginson lamented what he said was perhaps the last chance to celebrate the achievements of the review. It was a much-needed "thoughtful and evidence-based report".
But Professor Marginson said the Gillard government was possibly too fiscally constrained to respond to the recommendations for funding increases and some fee deregulation could be the "larger issue" for an incoming Coalition government.
"To increase the government contribution at this stage is to press against the logic of a surplus budget which is a must before the election, while to increase the student contribution before the election is electoral suicide, and there is enough electoral suicide already in the air," he said.
His vice-chancellor, Glyn Davis, said he doubted whether the base funding review was workable in the current "incoherent" policy environment in which the Bradley reforms had opened demand to competition but not price. He said price deregulation was inevitable.
UTS vice-chancellor Ross Milbourne agreed that deregulation was inevitable for fiscal reasons. "We have probably had the most supportive government in history in terms of what they put into higher education, and we are still struggling," he said.
Worried that lower-status universities would miss out on the premium fees the Group of Eight would enjoy in any deregulation, Victoria University vice-chancellor Peter Dawkins echoed Macquarie University VC Steven Schwartz's suggestion for a hybrid system. Under such a model, universities that opted to charge higher fees would forgo federal funding that could be redirected to other universities.
But economist Bruce Chapman noted that HECS would prevent real price competition since students, able to defer payments, would pay the maximum, allowing all universities to raise fees, as has largely happened in Britain.
"It is very unlikely that with price flexibility there would be much price competition at all. But there would be a major change in the contribution of students versus taxpayers," he said.
"If you put Porsche motor cars through the HECS system, everyone would have one," he said.
Innovative Research Universities director Conor King resisted the fee-deregulation bandwagon, arguing that the demand-driven system encouraged universities to compete on teaching and diverse offerings without the need to deregulate price.
The IRU has advocated adopting a single charge for students, with the balance from government. "The system has a lot of scope left in it," Mr King said.
The head of the government's higher education division, David de Carvalho, said there was support for base research costs to be included in base funding, and for postgraduate places to continue to be regulated.