By late April it was clear: I needed legal advice. No response from Marginson. No headway with Hare. And no progress with the Journal. Locked down in my collegial dungeon of low regard and high dudgeon, I felt as weary, stale and flat as a rat on a tilted treadmill.

Alas, poor Sharrock! My infinite zest for accuracy (and most excellent use of irony) had led me into a dark wood, and then a brick wall. And the result of all my efforts since? My inner farmboy did the math: two-fifths of three-eighths of bugger-all.

Over the Easter break Josh had taken paternity leave, and handed my case over to T&F’s Associate Editor in Melbourne, Alex. She picked up the material I’d sent from Tasmania (Chapter 8) and passed it on to their legal group in London.

From: Lazzari, Alexandra
Sent: Wednesday, 6 April 2016 10:25 AM
To: Geoff Sharrock; Pitt, Josh
Cc: Yardley, Mia; Ian Dobson; Leo Goedegebuure
Subject: RE: CJHE 1150231: Beautiful lies JHEPM – revised corrigendum 30 March

Many thanks Geoff for forwarding this information on. Can you please let us know if Simon responds? Cheers, Alex

In the event, waiting for Simon to respond would be a bit like that absurdist play I’d seen in Carlton in the 1970s, Waiting for Godot.

Meanwhile, on the home front, Fiona and I had three kids in three schools. Since we both commuted to work most days, the logistical gymnastics of family life kept us (at best) on our toes. On top of the usual schoolday routines, there would be drop-offs and pick-ups for drama or netball or soccer or tennis or choir. At weekends we’d catch up on household things, punctuated by an endless calendar of birthdays for someone, somewhere. Add in random shops for vital snacks anonymously woofed overnight, and it felt like we were running a fully-catered, 24/7 UberParent service.

At the Institute, meanwhile, everyone was busy. Leo and Heather were running a program offshore, at the University of Reading in Malaysia. For this they were using some of my Masters course material on tertiary education ecosystem scenarios, and leading and managing institution-level change.

Here in Melbourne I had more webinars to present. And some “light reading” for a supervisor meeting with one of our PhD students, Damian Barry. Meanwhile, assignment outlines from our Masters students were trickling in for early advice, before they launched into the work. And one of our Institute fellows, Vernon Crew, had developed a Change Capability in Tertiary Education manual, which I’d offered to read and comment on.

Along with these routine tasks, I had some media work coming up. The Centre (usually) encouraged us to comment in the media on higher education policy, to promote its public profile. Over the years I’d done a fair bit of this, mainly with The Conversation – and at times with The Australian (until now).

Commentary in The Conversation https://theconversation.com/should-universities-have-to-pay-back-unpaid-student-debts-46028

One theme I’d been tracking was system-level reform plans on university funding and student fees in Australia. Our HELP loan scheme had widened access to university study, by financing as many course places as the domestic student “market” demanded. But governments kept using the scheme to pass more teaching costs to students, with higher fees and lower grant funding. As students paid nothing upfront, universities could (and would) charge as much as any government allowed. In the UK this had happened in a big way already. A radical lift in the price ceiling had let UK universities set far higher fees and lift their revenue – but at the cost of much higher student debts.

In Australia the government had been trying to deregulate student fees since the 2014 May budget, assuming this would lead to differentiated “market” pricing. Their rationale drew in part on a controversial Grattan Institute report on graduate incomes, that I’d analysed for the Centre some years earlier. In The Conversation, I’d been a critic of this kind of policy, due to the moral hazard problem and its impact on student debts. The risk here was that all HELP would break loose: a boon for universty budgets, but a balloon in graduate debts. And in time, taxpayer-funded write-offs.

Support for the move that year from Universities Australia and the Group of Eight would prove an old saying about universities: if you grab them by the budgets, their hearts and minds will follow

While in Hobart I’d heard from Claire Shaw, the Education editor at The Conversation. On 9 April a new Parliamentary Budget Office report would appear, on the public cost of our HELP student loan scheme. She was setting up an “experts respond” group for this, with Timothy Higgins at the Australian National University, Ittima Cherastidtham at the Grattan Institute and Peter Noonan at the Mitchell Institute. When the report landed, we’d have about an hour to read it and comment on the implications.

Then there would be Budget night, on 3 May. For this, a longer list of experts was on standby to respond in The Conversation by 8.30pm, on any new policy that cropped up. As well, ABC Radio wanted to interview me and Paul Kniest of the NTEU on the effects of fee deregulation, in anticipation that it would feature in the Budget.

On the day of the PBO report, our rapid-response panel on HELP debts and reform issues went well enough. But in other media there was soon alarmist reporting on one of the PBO figures: $185 billion in accumulated HELP debt on the government’s books by 2026. Meanwhile, the Grattan Institute had been working on ways to reduce unrepaid HELP debts. And there were media reports that the government might let graduates use their superannuation savings to repay HELP.

So, as in 2014, a complex suite of reform plans might pop up unexpectedly in the May budget. I’d been following all these reports, and tinkering with some of the implications. The mechanics were complex, and there wasn’t much public debate about how they would work.

From The Conversation, 2016: https://theconversation.com/reforming-help-loans-combine-lower-repayment-thresholds-with-a-super-payment-option-57655

Just that day, the Australian Financial Review had reported on discussions in Canberra of the “Super for HELP” idea. So there were now some media hooks into what I was calling the “nightmare on HELP street” reporting of PBO figures, and what the May budget might reveal. I sent my latest 800 word outline to Claire.

From the Australian Financial Review, April 2016

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Tuesday, 12 April 2016 11:58 AM
To: Claire Shaw
Subject: HELP costs and reform options

Hi Claire, I have reworked this … First, it provides some reality checks on the PBO estimates, which I now think have been reported in alarmist terms in some of the media … Second, it calculates the actual HELP loan repayments implied in the recent Grattan report’s proposed new scale … Third, it then offers a possible super-related solution to the affordability (cash-flow) problem of the Grattan proposal’s lower income thresholds for HELP repayment. On this last point, it now links the super-into-HELP option to … media reporting, which suggests that this option has been actively considered by the Treasurer. Looking forward to hearing back from you on this. Best, Geoff

From: Claire Shaw
Sent: Tuesday, 12 April 2016 2:44 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Subject: Re: HELP costs and reform options

Hi Geoff, This is really interesting – and I think the piece you sent through is great. I’m really keen to run it. Could you update it with the latest news about paying off student debt with superannuation savings in your piece – saying that it could be a likely option in the budget and link to that news story. I’ll put it in our system and start editing – hopefully will run it tomorrow afternoon or Thurs morn. Cheers, Claire 

The Conversation ran it the next day. I spent time responding to the usual mixed bag of reader comments. And the thought occurred: if the Institute wouldn’t let me correct Hare’s report on our website, why not write a piece on OECD data for The Conversation, and do it there? Then any sector expert who disputed my view could argue their case openly, with evidence – either in my reader comment stream, or by publishing their own article in the same forum.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Friday, 29 April 2016 1:05 PM
To: Claire Shaw
Subject: new article on university lobbying for funding

Hi Claire, Next week at least will be devoted to the Budget, no doubt. But here is a Conversation article I’m working on about how we lobby for university funding, which I’d like to publish once the dust has settled on the Budget. It takes further a topic I wrote about last October. This time there are links to recent PBO reporting and DET reporting. Let me know how this looks to you. No urgency, of course. Cheers, Geoff

Making the case for university funding: more care needed with OECD comparisons

The work of universities offers high dividends to the nation. Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson’s recent call for better funding deserves support. But like many, her case is based on OECD statistics … Comparisons drawn from the OECD’s Education at a Glance reports have appeal because they seem so compelling. But they conceal as much as they reveal. They don’t offer a realistic view of the way we finance our universities, or how this compares with most other countries … First, ‘33rd out of 34’ has rhetorical appeal but in simple terms it was never quite right … Second, OECD reports on tertiary spending always present data that are at least three years out of date … Third, all HELP loans are classed in OECD statistics as private spending – even if never repaid … Governments pay HELP money directly to institutions along with research grants and teaching grants; and its public cost is substantial, as recent Parliamentary Budget Office reporting shows … Fourth, the common denominator for our OECD ‘outlier’ status is GDP … this overlooks the way our GDP growth has outpaced  that of others, most visibly since the global financial crisis … disparities this large inflate our apparent decline in public spending against an assumed OECD ‘norm’… In sum, while university sector leaders should keep calling for better funding, greater care is needed with OECD statistics.

In a nutshell, gentle reader, this was the common-sense case I’d been making in the Journal.

(But as Orwell once wrote: “the heresy of heresies was common sense”.)

Had it been published in The Conversation in early May, my critics at the Centre and The Australian might have recognised that there was some “inconvenient truth” here. They might even reconsider my paper’s evidence, and enlighten up.

On Budget night, as things turned out, no big new higher education policies appeared. With an election looming in July that year, the government had decided not to press on with its fee deregulation agenda. Instead, it would release a discussion paper and consult with the sector on possible future reforms. At 7.55pm, Claire emailed her list of experts, to let us know we could stand down.

And in the event, The Conversation wasn’t ready to run my OECD piece until mid-June. By then I’d found enough time – and lost enough patience – to take advice on my legal options.

To pursue or not to pursue? That, gentle reader, was the question…

Afterword

Update 20 May

In the 2021 May Budget, the Australian trend of passing more course costs to students continues. Most commentary is about the lack of extra funding for universities, still facing budget problems due to lack of access for international students. For policy wonks, my rough reckonings of the wider Budget picture for university sector revenue are here.

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