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The end of $250,000 degrees – at least for now

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The Federal Government has deferred controversial plans to deregulate university fees, providing relief for aspiring medical students fearful the change would have pushed the cost a medical degree above $250,000.

Education Minister Simon Birmingham has confirmed that the higher education reform package designed by his predecessor Christopher Pyne has been taken off the table pending further consultation with the sector.

In a radical proposal unveiled in the 2014 Budget, Mr Pyne detailed plans to cut university funding and deregulate course costs, sparking fears it would push the cost of a medical degree well in excess of a quarter of a million dollars.

But legislation for the change has stalled in Parliament because of strong opposition in the Senate, and Mr Birmingham told a higher education conference on 1 October it had been shelve duntil after the next election.

“With only three months left in 2015, it is necessary to give both universities and students certainty about what the higher education funding arrangements for 2016 will be,” Senator Birmingham said. “Therefore, I am announcing that higher education funding arrangements for 2016 will not be changed from currently legislated arrangements while the Government consults further on reforms for the future. Any future reforms, should they be legislated, would not commence until 2017 at the earliest.”

The Minister’s decision was welcomed by AMA President Professor Brian Owler, who said the prospect of $250,000 degrees would have had damaging effects on the practice of medicine.

“This would have discouraged students from low socio-economic backgrounds from entering medicine, it would have pushed future graduates towards higher paying specialties, and it would have deterred graduates from working in underserviced areas, including rural Australia,” Professor Owler said.

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he was disappointed by the decision to defer the legislation, and told radio 3AW he was “frankly…a little disappointed that more of the people who keep saying we need reform, we need cuts in government spending, did not get behind the 2014 budget”.

But Professor Owler urged the Government go one step further and give assurances that there will be no future blow-out in university fees.

 “The Government needs to give students some certainty that education will not be priced out of their reach should the fee deregulation proposals re-emerge after the next election,” he said, adding that the AMA was keen to work with the Government to develop reforms that boost funding for undergraduate medical education without putting the cost of a medical degree beyond the means of most students.

“The new Minister for Education and Training, Simon Birmingham, has declared he wants to consult broadly about future reforms, and the AMA wants medical workforce and training issues near the top of his agenda,” the AMA President said.

The Higher Education Base Funding Review: Final Report identified medicine as a discipline that was under funded, both in terms of the resourcing required, and in comparison with the funding provided internationally for medical schools, and Professor Owler said these concerns should inform discussions about changes in the sector.

 “Any future reform package must maintain our world renowned system of medical education,” he said.

Adrian Rollins