FEDERAL BUDGET: Official Response from VC Annabelle Duncan

FEDERAL BUDGET: Official Response from VC Annabelle Duncan

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Budget cuts no threat to quality education at UNE

In light of the Federal Budget that was handed down in May, the University of New England, like every other higher education provider in the country, will be forced to adapt to the biggest shake up of the sector in decades.

While it remains to be seen precisely what effect the budget proposals will have, this is an opportune time for UNE to confirm exactly who we are as an institution, and what we want to be in the future.

Regardless of where our students come from, what their personal situation, how they study and where they hope to go in the future, they all have one thing in common: they are striving for a better life for themselves, their families and their communities by furthering their education.

To help our students achieve this ultimate goal, UNE must remain an institution that provides opportunity on an equitable basis. We are about education for a better life, education for citizenship, and education that supports our communities.

One of the main issues that will affect higher education is the deregulation of fees and changes to the Commonwealth Grants Scheme. In essence, this means that from 2016 onwards, universities will be able to set their own fees. As I have indicated previously, I believe many of the so-called ‘Group of 8’ will move quickly raise their fees, but as yet it is impossible to know precisely how high they will go.

As a regional and online university, UNE has a large proportion of students from low to medium socioeconomic backgrounds, many of whom are the first in their families to attend university, and many who are working while studying part time to further their education.

At UNE, we understand that changes to the higher education system are not the only thing that will affect our students; changes to taxation, welfare payments and the healthcare system will mean a greater financial burden on many. No doubt this may lead some to consider sacrificing their tertiary education as this added expense competes against the myriad of family financial worries.

So while it will take time for UNE to understand fully how the budget changes will affect our own position, our every step as we tackle this difficult question will be made with the student at the very centre of our thinking.

UNE is a five-star University. We are very proud of the quality of teaching we provide all our students online and on-campus, and we will continue to provide the best educational opportunities to these students which will allow them to become leaders in their communities.

UNE is about quality courses and programs. We are about inclusion, opportunity, mentoring, pastoral care, and nurturing good citizens. We are about affordability. Most importantly, we are about the students.

All of these things must drive our strategy into the uncertain world of tomorrow.

I have said it before and I will say it again: the cost of education does not equate to quality, and UNE will continue to strive to provide a lower cost education of first-rate quality.

Nevertheless, UNE will still be affected by changes to the Commonwealth Grants Scheme. The amount received from the government to run certain courses will be reduced, which will mean that ultimately, more money would come directly from the pockets of students – or, in most cases, added to their student debt.

This brings me to another particularly worrying proposal in the budget: interest rates charged on student loans. Previously, HELP loans were subject to a nominal interest rate linked to CPI. From 1 January 2016, however, these will now be charged interest up to 6% compounding, meaning students could be burdened by debt for decades to come.

For our students, current and future, UNE opposes these changes.

Over the next weeks, I will be spending a good deal of time in Canberra lobbying parliamentarians, particularly in relation to the proposals concerning interest rates. We must keep in mind that these measures are still merely proposals, and that legislation will not go before the lower house until September. There is hope that some of the more concerning proposals will be softened or defeated outright, and I will do everything in my power to minimise the burden that will be placed on current and future UNE students.

I conclude by reminding all currently enrolled students not to panic. The changes to Commonwealth contributions will not come into effect until 31st December 2020, while indexation changes come into effect on 1st June, 2016.

For others still considering a tertiary degree, I would suggest that rather putting off your studies, you might instead commence as soon as possible in order to complete more of your degree before the changes inevitably come into effect.

UNE offers intakes for many units in Trimester 2 and Trimester 3. For all students, whether they have already commenced or deferred study, or are entering the Tertiary sector in the near future, I would recommend that you complete as much as possible between now and 2016.

Professor Annabelle Duncan Vice-Chancellor, University of New England

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