On the evening of Monday the 2nd of June the “Great Debate” concerning fee deregulation was held in Coombs lecture theatre.

On the panel were Vice Chancellor of the Australian National University (ANU) Ian Young, Vice Chancellor of the University of Canberra (UC) Stephen Parker, Australian Labor Party Senator Kate Lundy, Liberal Party of Australia Senator Zed Seselja, ANU Student’s Association President Cameron Wilson, Professor of Economics at UC Phil Lewis and The Director of Policy Impact at the Crawford School Professor Bruce Chapman.

The night started with all the panellists, minus the economists, who grudgingly answered questions after the debate, giving a 5 to 10 minute speech concerning their opinions relating to deregulation.

Stephen Parker began the night with a humorous, yet poignant speech against university deregulation. Parker highlighted the fact that university fees will have to increase by 30% to compensate for the decrease in commonwealth course cuts given by the government which is part of the deregulation package. Parker stated that it was the “worst piece of policy I have seen in Australia in my 26 years here”.

Parker also brought to light the disadvantages that will be experienced by students and in particular women and citizens of lower socio-economic status. The effect of university deregulation on international students, which is often a perspective ignored in the university deregulation dialogue, was also illuminated.

The public good that university institutions produce will be “destroyed” by deregulation declared Parker as he warned that “once unleashed [deregulation] cannot easily be contained again”.

The speech made by Parker concluded with a standing ovation from the audience and the twitter feed went wild with admiration.

Next on the podium was Ian Young, who admitted that he had a “tough gig”. Young alluded to the dreams of Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt, who imagined ANU as a university of “small classes of highly gifted students interacting closely with the best scholars in the world.” Young openly stated that this would not be a reality. Pragmatism emanated throughout his entire speech which defended his, the ANU’s university board and the Group of Eight’s support of deregulation.  Young sighed that the shift from university fees as a “burden from the tax payer to the individual” was “sadly unavoidable.”

Furthermore, Young expressed his caution in regards to equity issues that may arise due to the policy package and voiced his opposition to the change of the inflation rate of HECS, the cuts to commonwealth funding and Higher Degree Research students. Sources reveal that Stephen Parker and Ian Young were the two finalists for the Vice Chancellor position at ANU in 2011. It is important to note that Young does have differing pressures to Parker, ANU being a research-centric university. Young is also the President of the Group of Eight, a coalition of Australia’s leading tertiary institutions. Nonetheless the rivalry between both Vice Chancellors shone bright at the debate.

Kate Lundy declared in the opening of her speech that the ALP was the leading party of universal education. In her opposition to deregulation she reflected upon the regional effects for Canberra and stated that “It will hurt this city and this region”. Lundy also implicated the cuts to the Gonski reforms would further entrench the inequalities faced by students of lower socio-economic status. Zed Seselja read straight off a piece of paper that outlined the parroted Liberal party’s position of “we must repair the national budget” and “our universities must be able to compete.”

Cameron Wilson took the stage with a passion that cracked his voice. He called for the ANU to release the specificities of their modelling. Wilson stated that the diversification of universities will lead to the “structural reinforcement of classism”. The change that will force students to study not what they love but what they think will get them a job was also  emphasised by Wilson. The speech concluded with a warning to the ANU that dialogue, such as the dialogue encouraged by The Great Debate, “is not enough”.   

The second half of the night gave a chance for the audience to direct questions to the panellists. A notable question came from Amy from Ballarat who questioned the specifications of the equity scholarships. Jamie from Perth’s statement was also memorable as he highlighted how the amalgamation of the Liberal Party policies in the 2014-2015 Budget would make it even more difficult for students to travel to study and get jobs at the end of their degree.

Woroni successfully organised and executed the event. The venue was originally set at University House yet changed to a space with a larger seating capacity due to student interest. The crowd was incredibly respectful throughout the event, although the applause Ian received was quieter than the rest of the panellists (other than perhaps Zed Selesja). There was no shoe-throwing and the masses of security guard seemed almost unnecessary.

There were rumours that the Young Liberals had booked extra seats in planning to make it seem as if only small numbers of students were interested in fee deregulation. However, their efforts were to no avail as the venue was almost full.

The Great Debate was the first of hopefully many opportunities for students to interact with the university and the greater political sphere to debate issues concerning university deregulation. It is these issues of great importance that will affect not only the students of today and tomorrow, but society as a whole.

Photo by Janis Lejins.

Did you miss the Great Debate? Well lucky for you Woroni recorded the entire debate, so you can watch it below.