Perpetually disadvantaged by funding rules focused on public universities, Australia’s independent colleges are hoping things will change after the biggest reassessment of higher education policy in 15 years.

The government’s rhetoric about its “deal”, the terms of reference for which were due to be announced this month, has focused squarely on universities. But private sector representatives don’t expect to be left out of what Education Minister Jason Clare has called a “reset”.

The Independent Tertiary Education Council Australia said it was “increasingly confident” about its involvement in the process. “Ninety percent of the students are at public universities, and most of the research is certainly done there, but it’s not the only game in town,” said general manager Troy Williams.

Independent Higher Education Australia, which has called for strategic higher education reform ahead of the May election, said it was “delighted” that its members were included in what it saw as a “comprehensive review” of the Higher Education.

Chief executive Peter Hendy said independent providers suffered funding “anomalies” and a heavier regulatory burden than public universities. “We will have the opportunity to present a case next year to resolve these problems.”

Dozens of private institutions collectively educate one in 10 higher education students in Australia, often recording much higher satisfaction rates than public universities. Seventeen independent colleges and two private universities outperformed the highest-ranked public university in overall satisfaction in the latest student experience survey.

Independent providers also outperformed public universities in overall employer satisfaction, earning an average ranking 3.4 percentage points higher. However, when the government allocated funds for an additional 20,000 undergraduate places in skills shortage disciplines, all but a handful of independent colleges were left out.

Most are not eligible for Commonwealth-supported place funding, which subsidizes undergraduate courses. And while private college students have been spared a 20% fee on their tuition loans during the pandemic, those fees are set to apply again from January.

To make matters worse, private colleges say they will be disproportionately hit by the Higher Education Quality and Standards Agency’s proposal to cover most of its running costs by raising its fees. This includes the gradual introduction of new tuition fees of between AU$29,000 and AU$32,000 (£16,000-£18,000) per year for each institution, regardless of size.

Independent institutions say there is no clear provision for future increases to be reviewed externally and that Teqsa is not obligated to meet its own processing deadlines. Representative bodies want better service commitments in return for fee hikes, calling for a “service obligation charter” or clearly articulated customer service standards. “I don’t think Teqsa appreciates that when you move to full cost recovery, the relationship changes,” Williams said.

“When organizations pay for an activity, it is not unreasonable for them to expect it to be completed within a particular time frame. I don’t think culturally Teqsa has quite its head in this space yet.

Teqsa said it plans to update its service charter “in due course”. It said it would review its cost recovery model every year and consult with the industry about fee changes.

Providers with less than 5,000 students will also benefit from discounts of up to 70% on course accreditation and re-accreditation fees. But universities, as self-accrediting bodies, do not incur these costs.

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