Written by Samara Hand.

Last year saw several education reforms proposed in Australia, including reforms to higher education funding. In May the government presented a package of reforms in the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (A More Sustainable, Responsive and Transparent Higher Education System) Bill 2017. The reform package proposes increasing the student contribution amount, lowering the repayment threshold from approximately $55,000 to $42,000 (keep in mind that the minimum wage equates to approximately $35,000 per annum), and removing access to Commonwealth-supported places (i.e. government subsidised) for Australian permanent residents and New Zealand students, among other things.

The fact that Vice-Chancellors earn so much must not distract from the real issue: the government’s $2.2 billion funding cut to higher education. In fact, international human rights law suggests that such a measure is contrary to Australia’s human rights obligations.

While the reform package is certainly not something for current and future university students to celebrate, they are an improvement to the reforms proposed in 2014 which included a total deregulation of student fees, meaning universities would be free to set course prices. Yet, at a time when Australia should be investing more into higher education to ensure Australian workers remain a competitive workforce in the global market, the latest reform package proposes a 2.5 percent funding cut, equivalent to $2.2 billion. The policy objective of the reforms, as the title of the Bill suggests, is to ensure the long-term financial sustainability of higher education funding.

It is a particularly interesting time to reflect on the proposed funding reforms given the recent revelation that some university vice-chancellors in Australia earn over $1 million a year. It follows the controversy in Britain over findings that the University of Bath Vice-Chancellor’s salary is approximately AUD $800,000 a year. It was a poignant reminder that universities are big businesses. The federal government Minister for Education and Training, Simon Birmingham, took the opportunity to echo his previous suggestion that Vice-Chancellors should reduce their salary to compensate for more student places, as though doing so would offset the funding they would lose as a result of the reforms.

The Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, Stephen Weller, defended the high salaries saying “Vice-chancellors oversee complex multimillion-dollar organisations with thousands of staff. Their salaries are commensurate with some very senior heads of public enterprises and are less than the salaries for Australian CEOs who run similarly-sized organisations”.

It is understandable that students might be agitated at Vice-Chancellors earning big bucks while university fees are going up. However, as Belinda Robinson, the chief executive of Universities Australia argued, the fact that Vice-Chancellors earn so much must not distract from the real issue: the government’s $2.2 billion funding cut to higher education. In fact, international human rights law suggests that such a measure is contrary to Australia’s human rights obligations.

Article 13 (2) (c) of the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which Australia is a party, provides that “higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education”. The capacity of individuals does not relate to their financial capacity to pay fees, rather it is assessed with reference to their relevant expertise and experience. Accordingly, like other economic, social and cultural rights, the right to education is a “progressive realisation” right. That is, States Parties must take steps to “move as expeditiously and effectively as possible towards” introducing free higher education. Conversely, “there is a strong presumption of the impermissibility of any retrogressive measures taken in relation to the right to education”.

Despite the extra pressure after being elected to the Human Rights Council in October last year, the Australian government appears to be taking retrogressive measures in relation to higher education. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has made clear the obligations of State Parties if they do take retrogressive measures:

“If any deliberately retrogressive measures are taken, the State party has the burden of proving that they have been introduced after the most careful consideration of all alternatives and that they are fully justified by reference to the totality of the rights provided for in the Covenant and in the context of the full use of the State party’s maximum available resources.”

So, while the reform package is not as severe as the reforms proposed in 2014, the government should provide details as to what alternatives it has considered and justify why retrogressive measures are being taken. Indeed, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights has noted that the statement of compatibility accompanying the Bill does not contain information about the consideration of alternatives nor does it justify how the proposed funding cut is proportionate to the objective of achieving long-term financial sustainability.

Instead of suggesting that Vice-Chancellors reduce their salary to make up for the funding cut, the federal government should be answering the Joint Committee’s call for further information to explain why it is proposing reforms that are contrary to its human rights obligations.

Samara Hand is an Australian lawyer. She recently completed her masters in human rights at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. You can follow her on Twitter @SamuraiSam24. Image Credit: CC by Australian University / Wikimedia Commons

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