Will universities turn to a tiered subscription model for education?

Whether you are a student or an academic at a university around Australia, recent news has probably got you a little disheartened.

Late last June the Federal Government announced fee hikes for areas including humanities, law, management, communications and social sciences.

University of Sydney professor Vrasidas Karalis says these areas of study are fundamental to giving us a sense of identity and belonging and could deter students from participating in critical discussion.

“We have to take it seriously that it is here where the political conscience of a society are formed, if we don’t have humanities and the arts, universities will be abolished, we won’t have political debate in this country because where would we study politics? In the long run, we won’t have democracy because arts is the place where democracy is essentially established, articulated and justified,” he said.

La Trobe University lecturer and coordinator of Greek Studies Stephie Nikoloudis shared similar sentiments, going further to note the impact of these fee hikes could also mean the further breakdown of diversity in universities.

“We in Australia pride ourselves on being a just and equitable society that fosters diversity and inclusion. Denying access to a specific segment of society means less diversity and fewer voices contributing to important debates, and therefore less rigorous discussion about issues that concern all members of society, regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds,” Dr Nikoloudis said.

Dr Nikoloudis hopes these massive fee hikes and job cuts are a temporary measure “to help overcome the failed business model that relied so heavily on the revenue provided by international students”.

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As a result of a flawed financial framework and coronavirus impacts, universities have been culling their staff cohort, with Melbourne University vice-chancellor, Duncan Maskell, sending out an email detailing how “extremely difficult decisions” had been made to let go of 450 jobs earlier this month.

This was a part of a sequence of many cuts such as the loss of 493 jobs at the University of New South Wales, 277 at Monash University, 239 at La Trobe, around 210 at the University of New England and Victoria University announcing 100 and 190 full-time role cuts.

Prof Karalis says financial issues may have been exasperated when the growth of tertiary education was too fast to keep up with.

“Because of the scale of this expansion, universities were taken over by managers. Academics were pushed aside and didn’t have a say in the whole thing. It’s the managerial staff now that are in crisis,” he explained.

Dr Nikoloudis looks to the future, hoping this will provide some much needed time to change a system that constantly tries to just band-aid a much larger wound.

“It seems to be a good opportunity to re-evaluate how we wish universities to operate in the future and to introduce more viable models. Many universities are already trying to develop new strategies in the light of the recent difficulties that they have experienced,” she said.

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Swinburne director, master of financial technologies Dr Dimitrios Salampasis suggests that one of these more viable models may be a “tiered system”, where students pay for the kind of university experience they wish to have.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the on campus model will become a prime product. If we take the example of ‘airline mileage’, if you are at an entry level into the system you’re going to get basic benefits. But if you are a gold or a silver or a platinum member, you’re going to have more benefits…so if you want more, you’re going to have to pay more. This then takes us down another loop of discussion around ‘is this ethical?’ and ‘is this democratic?’,” he explained.

Although we know the Whitlam days of free tertiary education are long gone, the possibility of a tiered model would bring into question whether this creates greater barriers of entry for those wanting a university education and makes for a completely corporatised entity that focuses mainly on profit.

Universities may even begin merging administrative tasks to better balance their future finances.

“I really think that universities need to focus on the true valuable assets that they have which is research, teaching, engagement and knowledge creation and maybe have some shared models around admin, which is also very important and I’m not devaluing that at all, but maybe we need to go into some kind of sharing models.

Of course you cannot share research or teaching but maybe stand alone functions such as accounting, human resource management and student recruitment to a certain extent, this can potentially be shared with others and I wouldn’t be surprised if we also see universities shrinking,” Dr Salampasis said.

Universities still largely rely on funding from government  for research. To keep a strong foot in the international sphere of research and ingenuity, more faculties may form industry partnerships.

“We need to make sure there are funding schemes out there that can attract international talent, that can support bilateral and multilateral research relationships. At the same time we want to make sure that these types of research will actually be translated into solutions and will show new ways of doing things. I think there will be a big discussion into really enforcing partnerships with the industry so not just simply relying on public money, but really having a co-creative model and cost supportive model with private funding, with projects that work with the industry,” Dr Salampasis said.

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It may be a worry that by building relationships for money grants with the industry could mean research bias however Dr Salampasis says that by nature there is always going to be  a level of bias and “no money is ever free”. However there should be provisions put in place so that research can filter multiple versions of reality when it comes to project outcomes.

Despite the government guaranteeing a $18 billion contribution to keep universities afloat, it has excluded them from wage subsidies.

By consequence this has contributed to major job cuts across a sector that has largely hired people on a fixed-term or casual employment basis in recent years.