The Abbott government is fighting education battles on two fronts as it defends changes for universities and schools.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Education Minister Christopher Pyne clarified their policy on who faces deregulated university fees after Mr Abbott contradicted his budget on Wednesday.
Anyone who enrolled at university after May 14 faces deregulated fees from 2016. Until then existing caps apply on how much students pay.
“People who are at university now will finish their degree on the same basis that they started it,” Mr Abbott told reporters in Hobart on Thursday.
Mr Pyne said universities could decide anyone who starts studying in the next 18 months can continue under the existing arrangements – but that’s up to individual institutions.
As well as allowing universities to charge what they like from 2016, the government will slash its subsidies of course costs.
Some have speculated tuition at elite universities could soar to $200,000.
But Australian National University vice-chancellor Ian Young doesn’t believe it will be anywhere near that.
“I suspect institutions will be cautious rather than go with grandiose fee levels in the initial years,” he said.
Mr Abbott wouldn’t guarantee that fees won’t double, but insisted no one had to pay “a cent up front” because HELP loans cover initial costs.
Increased competition may even mean some fees may go down, he said.
On their other flank, Mr Abbott and Mr Pyne insisted that no matter what funding Labor may have promised schools, it had to be cut because the money was never really there.
The day after dodging university student protesters in Melbourne, Mr Abbott was faced with pro-Gonski crowds in Hobart.
They were spurred on by schools funding architect David Gonski’s accusation that the Abbott government had abandoned needs-based funding when it dumped $30 billion that had been proposed for schools over the next decade.
The coalition’s decision to increase commonwealth schools funding only by the rate of inflation from 2018 would be to Australia’s detriment, he said.
But Mr Abbott said Australia couldn’t afford to back down on that.
“I’m certainly not committing to a permanent massive increase at the same level of the former government because it’s those sorts of pie-in-the-sky promises that got us into the problem in the first place,” Mr Abbott said.
Schools funding was still increasing, just not at the same rate promised by Labor.
Mr Pyne said the next agreement he would negotiate with states to start in 2018 would “be very much largely the same.
“It will be needs-based, it will be across Australia and national, and the money will increase every year according to CPI and enrolments,” he told reporters in Sydney.