This is the second in a series of posts put together by GSA’s Representation Team, aiming to explain the proposed changes to higher education policy that were revealed ahead of next Tuesday’s Federal Budget.

Yesterday we explained the changes the government is planning for HELP repayments, and today we’re covering their plans for postgraduate Commonwealth Supported Places.

This part of the policy isn’t getting much attention in the media, but it’s of particular relevance to University of Melbourne graduate students because of the large number of coursework graduate students enrolled here (almost 25,000 at last count).

We don’t have many details yet of how the government intends the changes to take place, but here’s what we know so far.

So, what’s the current situation?

The federal government funds domestic university students through the provision of Commonwealth Supported Places (CSPs). These places are funded with a combination of public funding, via the Commonwealth Grant Scheme, and private funding, through a student contribution that can be deferred with HECS-HELP.

For domestic undergraduate students, their CSPs are managed through the demand-driven system: if a university enrols them, the government provides funding and grants them a CSP place. Simple.

For domestic postgraduate students it’s rather more complex.

Every university in Australia (and some non-university higher education institutions) has an individual agreement with the federal Department of Education about how many postgraduate CSPs they’re allowed to have, and for which courses. This means a university can have as few as 204 postgrad CSPs (University of the Sunshine Coast) right up to Melbourne Uni’s 6,308 places.

The government argues that the current system is unwieldy and complicated… and they’re kinda right.

You might have encountered this when you were deciding where to do postgrad study: even if two universities were offering the exact same course, one might have CSPs available and the other might not. It’s a bit of a mess, and confusing for students to navigate.

…which is why they want to change it.

And what’s the government’s proposal?

At the start of 2018, the government wants to cut 3,000 of the roughly 46,000 postgraduate CSPs currently provided. They say this is because these places currently aren’t being used by universities.

At the start of 2019, though, is where the big change happens: the government intends to completely scrap the current series of agreements they have with universities to allocate postgraduate CSPs.

To replace it, they’ll create a national scheme that would give eligible students a ‘scholarship’ equivalent to a postgraduate CSP that they could use to study at the institution of their choice, provided that institution is approved to offer CSPs.

The government says they’ll make sure institutions can’t turn away CSP students in favour of full-fee students, and argue that this new system would allow for more student choice and for expansion in the provision of postgraduate coursework degrees.

Where does that leave graduate students?

Honestly? We really don’t know yet.

If the government’s policy is passed by the federal parliament, all postgraduate students who were enrolled in CSP places prior to Monday night, when the policy was announced, will have that CSP for the rest of their course.

Postgraduate students who start in a CSP place from Monday onward will have that place until the end of 2018, but would then need to apply again under the new system.

Beyond that, we don’t have any details on how the new system would operate, or how it would affect the University of Melbourne’s future graduate students. It could be a positive change, but equally it could be really concerning and create a lot of uncertainty for future postgraduate students and universities.

On Tuesday afternoon, Acting Vice-Chancellor Margaret Sheil said that the University of Melbourne would hold the government to account and make sure that these plans don’t disadvantage its current or future graduate coursework students. We’ll be doing the same.

There’s just too much in the government’s plans that have the potential to undermine our higher education system and increase the burden and insecurity placed on students.

Unless they can prove that this policy would provide benefits to graduate coursework students without any damaging consequences, we’ll be calling on them to put it aside, and instead develop options that will better support students and the higher education sector.