Pyne signals more autonomy for unis could mean higher fees for students

Alexandra Hansen, The Conversation

Education minister Christopher Pyne has given his strongest indication yet that university fees will be deregulated, removing the cap on what universities can charge students.

In a speech at The Policy Exchange in London, Minister Pyne declined to pre-empt any budget announcements, but emphasised the deregulatory nature of the Liberal government and insisted universities need more autonomy.

Pyne said the government had already started this process by removing “burdensome” regulations and reporting requirements, and assured they would continue steps to “set higher education providers free”.

Speculation has grown that the government will remove caps on students fees since the release of a report by David Kemp and Andrew Norton, which said the demand-driven system for university places was a net positive, but continued funding may require a rise in student fees.

“Government investment alone is not enough to ensure a well-functioning higher education sector,” Pyne said.

He said Australia’s universities had much to learn from those in the US, with uncapped student fees meaning greater competition and thus higher standards in the sector.

He said the competitive nature of US universities bred a focus on competition for students and student loyalty towards the institutions, which he said often translated into philanthropic donations after graduation.

He quoted University of Adelaide Vice-Chancellor Warren Bebbington who said Australia’s higher education system has the opportunity to be as diverse as the States’, but “without the crippling debts”.

Putting students further into debt and decreasing the equity of the system are the main reasons for opposition to fee deregulation, but Pyne said providing tertiary education at a high standard with a competitive approach meant students would “win out”.

La Trobe University Vice Chancellor John Dewar said given that the government was unlikely to increase spending on higher education, an obvious source of funding would be to increase the proportion of cost that students contribute themselves.

Over the last 20 years, government investment per student has steadily declined under both parties in government, Dewar said.

Universities have managed this by expanding rapidly, he said, first, on the back of the boom in international enrolments during the 2000s; and then, from 2009 onwards, through the growth brought about by the demand driven system.

“This dynamic of growth cannot continue – there is now very little unmet student demand locally; the international market is unpredictable; and increased government investment in higher education per student does not seem likely.

“So, the reality is that something has to give if universities are to serve the national interest effectively,

“A deregulation of fee setting is an obvious next step for a government with a deregulatory agenda,” he said.

Dewar said if this was to take place it was vital there was a comprehensive scholarship scheme in place for students who might otherwise be deterred from coming to university by increased charges.

Vice-Chancellor of Queensland University of Technology Peter Coaldrake said the US system illustrated both the promises and pitfalls of deregulation.

“It is not itself a deregulated system, instead it is a sprawling mix of different types with persistent problems with quality alongside the strongest research institutions in the world.

“The task for us is to take what can be beneficial and to avoid the downsides,” Coaldrake said.

He said the emphasis in reform should not be on what institutions or even policy makers might want the sector to look like, but on what present and future students needed.

Co-author of the demand driven system review Andrew Norton said it looked like a key recommendation of his review, to open eligibility to Commonwealth supported places to all domestic students wherever they study, would be accepted.

One reason for implementing that recommendation, Norton said, was to encourage competition between higher education providers should fees be deregulated.

“While average fees will almost certainly increase if their current legal maximum levels are lifted or abolished, it is important that reasonably priced options remain available.

“While some students may be happy to pay a premium to attend a top 50 global research university, there is no evidence that research-intensive universities in Australia do a better job with teaching.

“Students should carefully compare the costs and benefits of different higher education options,” he said.

Higher education policy analyst Hamish Coates said pricing was a complex issue personally, socially and financially, and the higher education sector needed to “unlock new dollars” to be internationally competitive.

How this is managed is where it would get difficult, he said, because a close eye had to be kept on equity.

The Conversation

Alexandra Hansen is Editor at The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How building codes save homes from cyclones, and how they don’t

How building codes save homes from cyclones, and how they don’t

By Wendy Miller, Queensland University of Technology

During Queensland’s preparations for Severe Tropical Cyclone Ita, Queensland Premier Campbell Newman advised residents who lived in older houses (those built before 1985) to evacuate their homes as they were not likely to stand up to the storm’s destructive winds.

In the event, the damage was largely to the electricity network, while Cooktown, very close to the path of the storm, suffered less destruction than had been feared.

But the episode still begs the question: what was so special about 1985?

That was the year that building regulations changed to require new houses in cyclone-prone areas to be able to withstand higher winds. But how were these regulations determined, what do they mean for modern homes, and why do regulators always seem to wait until after a severe storm before updating the codes?

Updating the regulations

Building codes are drawn up by the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB), which cites its mission as addressing “issues of safety and health, amenity and sustainability”.

Its job is to set minimum standards for the design, construction and performance of buildings to “withstand extreme climate related natural hazard events”. It is then up to each state and territory to adopt the recommended standards.

After natural disasters, the ABCB examines the nature of building damage to decide whether the regulations provide enough protection. During Cyclone Tracy in 1974, 70% of Darwin’s houses suffered severe damage (90% in some areas), causing 65 deaths and damage worth hundreds of millions of dollars. It was obvious that existing building standards were not protecting the community.

As a result, the regulations were changed in the 1980s to improve the construction processes that attach the roof to the rest of the house, making homes more resistant to severe wind damage.

Analysis after cyclones Vance (1999), Larry (2006) and Yasi (2011) showed that the updated regulations have resulted in much less building damage and consequent loss of life. During Cyclone Yasi, for example, 12% of older homes suffered severe roof damage, but only 3% of newer homes.

Of course, this does not mean that newer homes are completely impregnable. Analysis of damage from Cyclone Yasi showed some remaining “weak points”: tiled roofs, sheds, garage doors, and doors/windows. It was found that more attention needs to be paid to the design, testing, installation, use and maintenance of products, components and fixings. Revised standards have since been developed for roof tiles, garage doors and shed design.

The right way to think about risk

Campbell Newman’s comment about older houses was partially correct – houses built to older standards were indeed more likely to suffer damage. But his statement is perhaps also misleading. Current building standards for Far North Queensland are designed to protect structural integrity in winds up to a Category 4 cyclone. If Ita had crossed the coast and maintained its Category 5 intensity, it is possible that all of Cooktown’s houses – old and new – would have been subject to severe damage.

It is crucial that the community understands what hazards and risks are being addressed by building regulations, and which ones are not.

For example, current regulations address wind loading associated with cyclones, but take no consideration of wind-driven rain (a major cause of water damage). There are also three specific hazards that are not addressed: hail, storm surges and heatwaves. The first two present risks to property; the third contributes to heat stress, which is in turn linked to health problems and deaths.

When deciding whether and how to update the regulations, the ABCB considers both costs and benefits. Regulations will only change if the ABCB and its stakeholders determine that the cost of the changes (such as higher building costs) are less than the benefits (the expected savings in reduced damage).

As a result, the regulations establish minimum standards, not best practice standards.

The community’s role

Home owners and residents therefore need to be aware of these limitations in the building regulations, and be much more proactive in determining what level of risk is appropriate to their circumstances. A simple risk assessment identifies three things:

  1. What hazards and risks might your house/unit/building be exposed to?
  2. What is the likelihood and frequency of those hazards?
  3. What are the consequences if the event happens?

Property damage is perhaps the first risk that people consider, particularly in relation to natural hazards such as cyclones, floods and bushfires. But buildings and their contents can also be damaged by heavy rain, hail, tidal surges, ground movement, and other phenomena.

There are also financial risks associated with not taking action, such as increased power prices and insurance premiums. These financial risks affect everyone in the community.

Meanwhile, people who are directly affected by property loss can also suffer resettlement costs and loss of income.

What should you do?

Listening to the authorities is important, but you should take responsibility for your own household risks too. One way to do it is to take out home insurance, but you need to be aware of what risks your insurance does and does not cover, and what are your responsibilities.

Another way to manage your risk is to take these things into consideration when you are building, buying or renting a property. Find out how a building has been designed and constructed to manage these risks. Ask the architect, designer, builder, estate agent, landlord, body corporate or local council for documentary evidence.

The insurance sector could also play a more proactive role in promoting better building design, perhaps by offering lower premiums for buildings with stronger construction.

Consideration also needs to be given to changing the way damaged buildings are evaluated and repaired after a disaster. New Zealand has acknowledged that the earthquake recovery process provides an opportunity for creating a more resilient city, not just restoring what was lost.

What is needed is a more collaborative approach to withstanding risks to our buildings, our property, and even our health. The ABCB seems to be moving in this direction, and it should not be expected to go it alone.

We all have a role to play in creating robust and resilient neighbourhoods that stand up to natural hazards.

The Conversation

Wendy Miller receives / has received funding from the Australian Research Council and the National Climate Change Adaptation Fund.

She is being sponsored by ICPS Australia to present her research findings at the Australian and New Zealand Disaster and Emergency Management Conference on the Gold Coast in May.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.