The Government Knows How Much Uni Fees Will Cost Under Deregulation But It Won't Tell Us

Oh, and the $152 million in cuts to higher education are still on the table.

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The Department of Education has again refused to release its modelling on how much university degrees will cost when it introduces partial fee deregulation in 2018.

Officials from the department were cagey when asked during Senate estimates to produce any data or modelling on university fee deregulation.

"I'm not aware as to any modelling per se... on deregulated fees," David Learmonth, deputy secretary of the Education Department, told Senate estimates.

"There would have been work done to try and estimate or otherwise understand what may have happened. Whether you can characterise that as modelling is another question... but certainly there was work done to try and understand what the likely changes and effects would be under that policy," he said.

The department admitted it has the data, but won't release it because it is advice to the government.

This is isn't the first time the government has refused to tell students what their future fees will cost under partial fee deregulation, due to be introduced at the start of 2018.

Last year BuzzFeed News revealed the department knocked back a freedom of information request by the national teacher's union, the NTEU, for any briefs, spreadsheets of potential fees or assessments of the impact of deregulation because the secret modelling contained commercially sensitive information about universities.

The department found 7,884 pages that met the NTEU’s request, but denied access to all of them.

Since coming to power in September 2015, the Turnbull government has not released a higher education policy, a move the Group of Eight universities describes as "policy inertia".

But the 20% zombie cut to the Commonwealth Grants scheme (HECS/HELP loans) proposed by the Abbott government in 2014 remains in the budget papers.

"[The 20% cut] is still factored into the budget," education minister Simon Birmingham confirmed on Wednesday at Senate estimates.

Birmingham said the government's higher education policy, including legislation of partial fee deregulation for universities, will have to meet the same budget parameters previously laid out.

That includes more than $152 million worth of cuts to the higher education sector over the next four years, $100 million of which is earmarked for "budget repair".

Nine months ago the government released a discussion paper that flagged possible changes to the higher education sector including allowing universities to set their own fees for certain “flagship courses”.

These courses would allow universities to offset government funding cuts with increased student fees.

Other proposals included introducing a “household income test” for the repayment of student loans, introducing a baseline ATAR for courses, and collecting HECS debts from deceased estates.

Yesterday, Birmingham refused to confirm which of these options the government would pursue but wouldn't rule out cuts to university funding, an increase in student fees, or cuts to research grants.

"I'm not ruling anything that was canvassed as options... in or out," he said.

More than 20 of the 39 universities in Australia have written submissions to the discussion paper outlining their objections to the government’s plan.

University vice-chancellors told BuzzFeed News there has been a breakdown in trust between the government and the sector, which has left them with no option but to reject the proposals.

The government will announce its higher eduction policy in the lead up to the May budget.

Alice Workman is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Canberra.

Contact Alice Workman at alice.workman@buzzfeed.com.

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