From where I sit - Hanging in the balance

September 9, 2010

The federal election in Australia on 21 August left the country with a hung Parliament and three independents from rural electorates holding the balance of power.

The election result also left the higher education system in limbo at a more than usually crucial time, with a long list of unanswered questions and a funding base in free fall.

In Australia's 150-member House of Representatives, the incumbent Labor Party and the opposition Liberal-National coalition each secured 72 seats. Each can count on one extra vote: Labor from the lone Green Party MP and the coalition from a rogue member who sits on the cross-benches but will support the coalition when it comes to the crunch. That leaves both sides three short of a working majority.

This brings the four bona fide independents into play. Three represent rural electorates. Each is an ex-member of the National Party with a poisoned relationship with the coalition. Each represents an electorate that dislikes Labor. These three have blocked in negotiations with the major parties over which side to support.

The remaining swing MP has said he will lean to Labor.

Higher education went almost unmentioned during the campaign. Labor has unfinished business in the sector but little energy for completing it. The coalition parties, which could form the next government, have no coherent policy on funding and have said nothing at all about science and research. The three rural independents, whose personal foibles have suddenly become so important, have shown no interest.

But perhaps we should add - watch this space! Just one swing MP has a university in his constituency - the University of New England in northern New South Wales. Stand by for a crash course in pork-barrelling. Perhaps the other two will open a university in their electorates before their power vanishes, when the next election returns Australia to majority government!

Meanwhile, matters of substance are being ignored. International education, Australia's fourth-largest export sector, is in trouble. It provides 16 per cent of university income in Australia - more than 30 per cent in some institutions. It has grown at an annual rate of 12 per cent for two decades, but enrolment will nosedive next year.

During the campaign, both sides pandered to migration resistance in the electorate. There is bipartisan consensus on sharp reductions in immigration. International students on temporary visas outnumber permanent migrants by almost two to one. A tougher visa regime, and a crackdown on education/migration scams centred on India, has already reduced the number of new international student visas by 16 per cent.

The system is also on the brink of a shift to uncapped funded growth in domestic students, beginning in 2012. Both sides support this, although the coalition wobbled during the election, but there will be unfunded growth of more than 5 per cent in 2011.

The Australian academy will soon be overseen by a new regulatory body, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Authority. Again, it is supported in principle by both sides, but its mechanisms have not been defined. The position of the body's Labor-appointed chair, former vice-chancellor Denise Bradley, may be in doubt if the coalition takes power.

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