Deep budget cuts on menu for Australian sector

Diplomatic dinner celebrating US-Australian relations is only the entrée to a full-blown battle over funding cuts that has put the demand-driven system on ice, says John Ross

March 4, 2018

To an Australian ear, the word “mateship” jars when it is spoken with an American accent.

The word echoed around the Great Hall of Australia’s Parliament House this week as dignitaries saluted a century of “mateship” between the US’ expansive vowels and Australia’s nasal twang.

The “mateship” between the two nations started in 1918 with the Battle of Hamel which “turned the tide” of the First World War, Julie Bishop, Australia’s foreign minister, told the room on 27 February.

It was the first and only time that US forces had been led in battle by a citizen of a foreign power – in this case, Australia’s General John Monash.

The first official treaty between the two countries didn’t materialise until 31 years later when the Fulbright Program was established in Australia.

Since then, more than 5,000 scholars from both countries have broadened their minds at each other’s institutions of higher learning. The latest batch of scholars was feted by Bishop, education minister Simon Birmingham and former American ambassador Jeff Bleich, known as one of Australia’s especially good mates.

Bleich, now a Democratic candidate to become the next Lieutenant Governor of California, is also chairman of the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. He said that the programme, which had been bankrolled from the sale of surplus weapons, was the perfect antidote to the erosion of trust, the assault on truth and the technological disruption afflicting today’s world.

“Travel disrupts old habits of thought, our prejudices, our blind spots,” he told the hall. “It removes our fears, and we rediscover the humanity that binds us.”

Earlier, Margaret Gardner – now vice-chancellor of the university that bears Monash’s name – had taken the new recipients aside and enthused about her own time as a Fulbright scholar.

She said that it had proven a transformative time for her and husband Glyn Davis, who now happens to run the nearby University of Melbourne.

While the entrée in Canberra was a glorification of the past and of doors opening, the main course was about the future and doors closing.

The shadow of an A$2.2 billion (£1.2 billion) cut to the higher education budget, inflicted by Birmingham just two months earlier, hung over Universities Australia’s higher education conference that began the next morning – symbolically, perhaps, the last day of the Antipodean summer.

Mr Birmingham had sidestepped parliament to wield the knife, after the Australian Senate blocked $2.8 billion in cuts proposed the previous May.

The biggest change was a two-year freeze on teaching grants that effectively put Australia’s uncapped higher education funding system on ice.

When Gardner – who is also UA’s chairwoman – blasted the move, she loaded her twin rifle barrels with Australia’s cherished ideals of mateship and egalitarianism. “Our university system now educates tens of thousands more Australians who would not otherwise have had the chance,” she said.

“Having opened the doors of opportunity, our nation cannot afford – socially or economically – to slam them shut once more.”

Tanya Plibersek, the opposition’s education spokeswoman, took up the theme when she addressed the conference the next day. “The demand-driven system was doing exactly what it was designed to do: allow growth in the sector in areas that needed it.”

“The greatest growth in higher education came from the outer suburbs of Perth, Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and Adelaide. In the wealthier parts of the country, enrolment was growing at or below the rate of population growth. The freeze of funding will put a brake on enrolment growth in regional and outer suburban areas and among poorer students.”

Among universities, there are varying views on just how much the freeze will bite. The Australian Catholic University, which grew extremely quickly after the enrolment cap was relaxed late last decade, has been the first to put the shutters up now that the cap is back.

ACU cancelled dozens of courses days after the freeze was announced. Sources say that its rapid growth meant that it already had lots of students in the “pipeline” and couldn’t risk enrolling new ones who might not attract government funding.

Some small regional universities also find themselves with new facilities that they can’t afford to use, because they can’t attract the enrolment subsidies that would make them financially feasible. But by and large, most universities have adopted a wait and see attitude, postponing any change in their admissions until winter or next year.

A senior administrator at a large city university said that when lectures and tutorials were full, it didn’t matter too much if a handful of them arrived without subsidies – an argument that Birmingham’s office has echoed.

There is a reasonably widely held view that the demand-driven system was never going to last anyway. Universities such as the ACU and Swinburne turned this into a self-fulfilling prophecy by signing up students like crazy in the system’s early years, a bit like a driver on a country road who speeds up because he’s running out of petrol.

There is also a view that universities are too full and degrees are losing their premium. Gardner parried this with survey findings showing that most Australians don’t think the value of university education is waning.

“When we hear commentators suggest that university education is now extended to too many people, we should be clear that such views are really about reducing opportunity for some Australians,” she said. “Whose children, relatives or partners are they suggesting should not have this chance?”

Gardner beseeched the government to reverse its funding freeze – a request predictably batted away by Birmingham when he addressed the conference the same afternoon. “It would be nice if money was limitless, but it is a sad fact of life that it is not,” he intoned.

Birmingham has achieved a significant school funding package and managed to stop the bleeding of money from an appallingly mismanaged diploma loans scheme. But university reforms have eluded him.

His May package was uniformly opposed by Australia’s universities, even though all but one had supported the far more unpopular changes proposed by his predecessor Christopher Pyne – maybe because they included the irresistible lure of deregulated tuition fees.

Perhaps the last word should go to General Monash. Davis, who rounded off the conference as part of a panel discussion of retiring vice-chancellors, recounted how Monash had resigned in disgust from the University of Melbourne over a decades-long dispute about the title of the university’s administrator.

Monash grumbled that dealing with academics was no picnic. “It was easier to organise an army on the Western Front,” he reputedly said.

John Ross is a Times Higher Education reporter based in Sydney.

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