Australian universities funded for unsolicited places

Warning of ‘stranded funding’ as bureaucrats bend the rules of a programme with too many goals

二月 8, 2023
Australian national coach inspects the balls during a training session to illustrate Australian universities funded for unsolicited places
Source: Alamy

Australian bureaucrats fulfilled a government promise to bankroll extra degrees by funding universities for places they had not requested, in disciplines that barely met the eligibility criteria.

New funding agreements between the federal government and almost 50 universities and colleges allocate more than 30 per cent of this year’s “equity” places – which were supposedly reserved for disciplines experiencing worker shortages – to areas with almost no identified skill gaps.

When the government announced how it would allocate the extra 20,000 places last year, it said they would be targeted at areas such as education, health, engineering and technology. But only about 20 per cent of this year’s complement have gone to courses in disciplines like nursing, engineering and science.

Substantially more have been directed towards fields such as law, commerce and the humanities – courses that the previous government considered of such low priority that it slashed teaching subsidies in these areas by more than 80 per cent.

Australian National University policy expert Andrew Norton said universities had told him that they had not even applied for equity places in these “cluster one” disciplines, only two of which – accounting and auditing – are officially classified as national skill shortage areas.

But Department of Education officials appear to have concluded that they could not meet this year’s target of 10,000 additional places – which were also reserved for students from disadvantaged backgrounds – without including “a whole slab of cluster one courses”.

Professor Norton said the episode highlighted the pitfalls of giving programmes too many objectives. “The more goals you pile on to a policy, the harder it is to achieve any of them because it’s more and more difficult to find the single student who ticks all those boxes,” he said.

“As a result, we get what I’ve called ‘stranded funding’ – funding that has been authorised by the government but can’t be spent.”

When it announced its election policy to create an extra 20,000 higher education places over two years, the then Labor opposition said universities catering to disadvantaged groups would be favoured. It went further in office, saying the extra places could go only to students from these groups.

Publicly, universities applauded the decision, but privately, administrators questioned the feasibility of using an equity measure to tackle labour gaps. They said it was very difficult to find disadvantaged students prepared to study in the government’s priority fields – particularly at a time of plunging domestic demand.

Professor Norton said he sympathised with officials. “I feel sorry for bureaucrats dealing with a promise made by an under-resourced opposition…who did not really understand how the funding system worked. They have tried to meet the election promise as best they can, but it’s not a pretty solution,” he said.

The Department of Education said the places had been allocated to the institutions and courses that ensured the “best possible outcomes” for both students and industry. “No university was required to take places they did not want,” a spokeswoman said. “The formal allocation arrangements for these places are still being settled with universities.”

Professor Norton said the forthcoming universities accord would need to weigh the benefits of efforts to “micromanage” funding. “My view is, almost paradoxically, you will do worse on those skills and equity goals if you try and be prescriptive [because] the system won’t have the flexibility.”



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Reader's comments (1)

What a waste of resources. I thought the priorities would be in areas already experiencing acute shortages, such as health where everyone recognises the need to educate more medical practitioners and health workers.