Australia’s Labor opposition has increased pressure on the government over university funding, pledging A$174 million (£97 million) to boost aspirations among young people from areas bypassed by the past decade’s higher education boom.
Shadow education minister Tanya Plibersek said the money would help bankroll mentoring, support and “other specialised programmes” to boost opportunities for university study in communities where graduation rates were low.
Announcing the new commitment in Caboolture, on Brisbane’s northern fringe, she said local youth were about one-fifth as likely to obtain university degrees as their counterparts from Sydney’s leafy north shore.
“That’s not because people are smarter on the north shore of Sydney; it’s because they’ve had more of an opportunity to get that education,” she told journalists. “We want to spread that opportunity more evenly.”
Ms Plibersek’s office said the newly announced funding would be additional to the A$10 billion already promised by Labor to restore the demand-driven university funding system if it wins next year’s federal election.
But, like the A$10 billion, the extra equity funding would be doled out over 10 years. And unlike Australia’s flagship equity scheme, the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Programme, the newly announced allocation would also be available to community organisations and public vocational training colleges.
This reflects Labor’s policy of boosting the capacity of colleges alongside universities, initially by reviewing the entire tertiary education sector.
Ms Plibersek said universities, colleges and community organisations would need to apply for grants from the new scheme. She said she would be inviting submissions from vice-chancellors shortly.
She cited existing projects as examples of the partnerships Labor wanted to fund. One was a peer study programme at James Cook University, in northern Queensland, where first-year students had achieved better results and progression rates after being tutored by latter year students.
Another, involving La Trobe University in Victoria, had been credited with a 32 per cent boost in enrolments from schools in disadvantaged areas.
The Innovative Research Universities group said extra funding could help attract students “whose backgrounds could otherwise hinder their pursuit of university education”.
“The extra money announced today will allow Labor, if in government, to tie support funding to the number of students needing it so it grows in line with enrolments,” said Conor King, executive director of the IRU. “That would give universities an added incentive to attract students from low socio-economic status backgrounds.”
The Regional Universities Network said that while the extra money was welcome, long-term policy commitments and funding stability are needed – particularly in regional Australia, where university attainment rates are half of those in the cities.
“It will take a generation to fundamentally change behaviour and address the embedded, significant, inter-generational, multi-faceted, educational disadvantage many face,” said Greg Hill, chairman of the RUN.