Impact Assessment of University-Fee Deregulation on Prospective Regional University Students in WA
The 2014 proposal by the Australian federal government to deregulate fees in the country’s universities has generated passionate debates. Discussions on higher education funding have largely been dominated by capital market and social justice ideologies, the latter of which support the expansion of higher education as a means of promoting and widening participation and equal opportunity.
Looking to contribute to the limited empirical evidence available on the subject, Dr Kwadwo Adusei-Asante, with colleagues Dr Isaiah Awidi and Associate Professor Peter Hancock from Edith Cowan University, undertook research on how the proposed shift in higher education policy would affect prospective regional university students. The cohort was chosen as the literature suggests people living in rural, regional and remote locations have less opportunity to study courses of their choice at university and have higher living and transport costs when they relocate to cities in order to study. The qualitative study was conducted in 2015, before the policy was reintroduced in Federal Parliament.
“Given the strong opposition to the proposed policy at the time, and the seeming conflict of the proposal with the existing and previous bipartisan commitment to the widening participation agenda, my colleagues and I conducted semi-structured interviews and focus groups with 50 respondents from three regional localities,” Dr Adusei-Asante said.
“We met with Year 12 students and their parents and teachers to identify in the first instance what they knew about the proposed fee deregulation policy, and what they understood the likely impacts of deregulation would be.”
The researchers analysed for their similarities and differences the major themes that emerged from the study, before writing them into narratives.
“Most of the respondents we spoke to had little to no knowledge of the proposed policy,” Dr Adusei-Asante said.
“Of the students who had heard about the proposed policy, the majority of them only learned about it as a result of their teachers inviting them to participate in our research. The eight per cent of students who did know about the proposed reforms had learned about them either through their family members or via the media.”
While most of the research participants had limited knowledge of the deregulation reforms initially, when they learned that the policy meant universities would set their own fees, the general concern was that the cost of study would rise.
“The majority of the participants we spoke to weren’t against the deregulation proposal in principle, rather they were averse to its potential to lead to fee increases,” Dr Adusei-Asante said.
“Some seem encouraged that deregulation would make Australian universities internationally competitive and improve access to higher education for students from low socio-economic status backgrounds.”
“At the same time, the Year 12 students told us that if university fees did rise, they were more likely to take a gap year to work and save money, despite acknowledging that a gap year might result in them not going to university at all.”
Almost all of the parents who participated in the research argued that the current cost of university education for students from regional Western Australia was already high and that if deregulation led to fee increases, many of their secondary-school aged children may be demotivated from accessing higher education.
“The parents we spoke to knew quite well that regional youth receive the same amount in Youth Allowance as those who live in metropolitan areas,” Dr Adusei-Asante said.
“If young people are to fund their relocation from the regions to the cities, additional financial assistance to fund the move is likely to be required.”
Echoing concerns of students and parents, teachers also noted that accessing higher education was already unpopular in regional WA, with fewer than 20 per cent of Year 12 students participating in ATAR pathway studies. In addition, the shortage of regionally-based university campuses impacted on students’ decision to study.
“Unless scholarships specifically targeting rural, regional and remote students were established and made publicly available, the teachers we spoke to weren’t confident their Year 12s would choose to go to university.”
Given the debate concerning university funding remains ongoing, the key policy implication resultant from the research concerns public engagement.
“As residents in rural, regional and remote areas are likely to be one of the groups most significantly impacted by changes in university fee policy, it’s important that they are consulted and educated on what changes might mean for them and their aspirations,” Dr Adusei-Asante said.
The paper, “Impact Assessment of University Fee-Deregulation on Prospective Regional University Students in Western Australia” was presented at the 2016 IAIA (International Association for Impact Assessment) Conference in Aichi-Nagoya, Japan.