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University staff reserve judgement

30 May 2002
Media Release
Attention Education Reporters

University staff reserve judgement on new ministerial powers

The Association of University Staff [AUS] wants more information before passing judgement on the Government's introduction of ministerial powers to set student fees maxima for university courses. 'Universities need better public funding and our response to the idea of the Minister determining how much universities can charge students depends on the size of the government's contribution,' said Dr Grant Duncan, AUS National President.

'We await details of the fee-maxima scheme,' said Dr Duncan. 'Commenting on this proposal is like buying a ticket to a roller-coaster, you don't know whether you'll feel thrilled or sickened by the outcome. Fees maxima could rise or fall dramatically, so our evaluation would have to be on a year by year basis'.

'As a matter of democratic process, though, it is very disappointing that Government has sneaked this provision through in a last-minute addition to the Tertiary Education Reform Bill, preventing formal submissions from University Councils and others. To remove very significant powers, such as the mandate to set tuition fees, from institutions without consulting sector groups or calling for public submissions does little to inspire trust in Government.

'The imposition of fees maxima, however, is a further sign that the competitive, privatised model of the 1990s is on its way out. But it is also a sign that this Government and the last one both failed to provide sufficient public investment in the sector. If public funding had been adequate, student fees would not be as high as they are.

'At least Governments can be held to account by students and their families through the elections, and explicit fee-maxima set by Government avoid the bribery they employed to enforce fees stabilisation through the last three Budgets. But we have yet to be convinced that Government will manage fee-setting more fairly or effectively than University Councils did.

'Also, this concept indicates that Government is getting more deeply into centralised control of universities. We now have ministerial control over sectoral strategy, institutional priorities and charters, tuition subsidies, research objectives and funding, and student fees. As the Minister will have his hands firmly on nearly every lever, he is only one step away from steering industrial relations in the sector, something that to-date he's been in denial about. Nearly every move he makes from now will have an effect on our members' salaries.'

AUS also see the fee maxima idea as a further sign that student fees are now thoroughly entrenched. But government needs also to deal with the more costly question of student living allowances.

'Our future support for fees maxima will depend on whether they are fair and affordable for students, and whether the public investment in universities will be adequate to sustain both the affordability and the quality of education,' Dr Duncan added. AUS reactions to the future fees maxima will therefore be directly linked to a number of factors which are still unknown and which could easily change from year to year. These factors include:

* The size of the fees maxima in aggregate terms and in relation to past fees
* The different levels of fees allowed between different kinds of courses and between different institutions
* The level of public investment in university teaching and research subsidies
* The future of tertiary student allowances

Dr Grant Duncan, AUS National President 021 680 475
Helen Kelly, AUS General Secretary 04 915 6691

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