REGIONAL Universities will be watching with more than just passing interest today if, as expected, Education Minister Christopher Pyne introduces legislation asking Parliament to agree to significant changes to university fees and funding.
Confidential modelling shows that the changes, including the deregulation of university fees, a 20% drop in course subsidy and an increase in interest fees on student loans, would serve to widen the gap between the top eight universities and those in regional areas.
"The issues for regional universities is that we have a much thinner market than in metropolitan areas so we just don't have the density of students for the market to fully operate," said Regional Universities Network executive director Caroline Perkins.
"Universities in metropolitan areas and the elite universities are likely to put up their fees if the legislation goes through and there will always be wealthy students from wealthy families who can afford to pay those higher fees.
"Many students from regional Australia are from low socio-economic backgrounds or are first in family to go to university and there is potential for them to be deterred from going to university if regional institutions put up their fees."
The latest modelling, prepared for university officials and leaked in The Age newspaper, shows that while the top universities would continue to make money despite the funding cuts, the scenario would be very different for regional universities which would be lucky to break even.
Dr Perkins said that educating regional students in regional universities was vital to ensuring that essential services would continue to be delivered to communities in the bush.
"It is very important to increase the number of students at regional universities because the numbers are already lower than we would like," Dr Perkins said.
"The best way to get people to work in professions in regional Australia is to train them in regional Australia."
Mr Pyne argues that deregulation would be beneficial to all universities with metropolitan and regional institutions being able to capitalise on the "trickle-down" effect of students that were unable to get into the elite centres but his detractors say that trickle-down economics doesn't have a particularly good reputation - either among economists or the wider community.
"Rather than distributing wealth and opportunity across the community, it is recognised as concentrating wealth and opportunity in the already privileged segments of society and hence is regressive rather than progressive," said Janice Dudley, associate Dean at Murdoch University.
"In the same way, trickle-down or flow-across in Australian higher education will strengthen the Group of Eight at the expense of Australia's higher education sector as a whole."
Dr Perkins is of a similar opinion adding it was unlikely that regional universities would benefit from the "trickle down".
"There is no real history in Australia of students in metropolitan areas going in large numbers to regional Australia to study," she said.
"So it would be a major cultural change to see lots of students from capital cities go to regional areas to study. It would be unprecedented."