Germana Nicklin: Australian tertiary education policy is not just a domestic matter

A graduation ceremony for Victoria University. The access by Kiwis  to tertiary study in Australia has just got more ...

A graduation ceremony for Victoria University. The access by Kiwis to tertiary study in Australia has just got more difficult.

OPINION: It is disturbing to see yet another erosion of New Zealanders' rights in Australia with the recently announced change in status for New Zealand tertiary students from "domestic" to "international". 

Disturbing not only because of the reduced financial security for New Zealand students studying in Australia, but also because it cuts across the expectations created by the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement. This non-binding arrangement is a loose set of documents formalised in 1973, enabling Australians and New Zealanders to live and work in each other's country.  Disturbing not just for underlining that for the Australian Government, mateship with New Zealand is a strictly qualified affair, but also that it undermines the trans-Tasman Single Economic Market.

The Australian claim that the change to its tertiary education policy is a domestic matter does not hold in the context of the Single Economic Market. The aspiration for a trans-Tasman Single Economic Market was adopted to revitalise the Australia-New Zealand relationship after the opportunities under Closer Economic Relations were seen to be exhausted.  It aims, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is "to create a seamless trans-Tasman business environment". The implication of this aspiration is that the two countries will continue to work towards greater integration, not less.

 To this end, in 2011 the Australian and New Zealand governments commissioned the two countries' Productivity Commissions to examine progress and recommend actions to further this goal. The joint 2012 report gave two key reasons for not just maintaining but also enhancing portability of trans-Tasman tertiary education – it helps raise productivity and is a key source of innovation (with the implication that both countries will gain from this).  

But there is another reason for tertiary education policy to be considered in a trans-Tasman context. The joint Productivity Commission report framed the trans-Tasman Single Economic Market in terms of the freedom of movement of trade, labour, services and capital. These concepts, known as the four freedoms, were borrowed from the European Union. A joint Productivity Commission supplementary report on people movement clearly establishes that the provision of tertiary education falls within the "services" area. While it didn't specifically address fees or status of students, it did recognise the gradual reduction of New Zealanders' rights in Australia since that country introduced a Special Category Visa for New Zealanders in 1994, noting that New Zealand students in Australia are not treated equally with Australian students. 

As a solution, the supplementary report suggested following the European Union example of adopting policy principles to create a more predictable and co-ordinated policy environment, while still providing scope for each country's security and fiscal concerns to be addressed. This suggestion did not make the final recommendations, the only one relating to tertiary education being that Australia give New Zealanders access to student loans. 

A mechanism to co-ordinate tertiary policy already exists in the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). New Zealand is a member of the COAG Education Council, and is represented at the ministerial level by the minister of education and at the officials' level by the Secretary for Education. Given the council, according to its website, is "a forum through which strategic policy on school education, early childhood and higher education can be co-ordinated at the national level and through which information can be shared, and resources used collaboratively, to address issues of national significance", It is hardly naive to think that this council might cover a policy matter such as the status of New Zealanders in tertiary education. However, the communiques over the past two years reveal this topic has not been on the agenda.   

Perhaps it is time for the New Zealand government to push for a binding agreement on the movement of people across the Tasman to stop this continued and unilateral erosion of Single Economic Market rights.? If this fails, perhaps it is time to admit that the Single Economic Market is a fiction as it relates to the freedoms of labour and services, and to abandon it altogether?

Given the failure of the proposal to adopt trans-Tasman policy principles to make the final recommendations in the joint Productivity Commission report, and the absence of COAG discussion on tertiary fees for New Zealanders, one has to question whether there is any appetite from the Australian side for better tertiary education policy co-ordination with New Zealand and what the relevance of the Single Economic Market is. Mates may not agree on everything but they should be honest with each other.

Dr Germana Nicklin is Deputy Director and Senior Lecturer for the Centre for Defence and Security Studies, Massey University. Her PhD thesis was on trans-Tasman border management policy.

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