Goodbye to the good times

June 28, 1996

Australia was a land of plenty for higher education under Labor - plenty of students, jobs, and loans. Under the new conservative coalition, the threat is plenty of cuts. Geoff Maslen looks at the flipside of expansion in a THES special report.

Australian higher education is in turmoil. The new conservative government of John Howard plans savage cuts on all public expenditure and universities fear the worst. They turned out in their tens of thousands: academics, general staff, students - and even a handful of vice chancellors who, for the first time, joined protest marches down the main streets of Australia's capital cities.

If it takes a hanging to concentrate a man's mind, then the threat of a massive reduction in federal spending has focused the attention of everyone involved with universities and united them in an unprecedented way. Never before have so many staff and students quit their campuses to demonstrate. Never before have vice chancellors been so outspoken in their condemnation. And never before have most of the nation's newspaper leader-writers echoed the concerns of the higher education unions, students, university chiefs and the learned academies.

But although the various lobby groups have joined forces in a unique alliance, they have no clear idea what they are fighting. The government has given no indication of its plans for higher education - apart from some hints from education minister Amanda Vanstone that expenditure on universities could be cut by as much as 12 per cent, or by as little as 2 per cent.

Prior to the election in March, which saw the long-serving Labor government swept from office, the conservative coalition of Liberal and National parties pledged a period of consolidation for the university system to strengthen after a period of tumultuous change. "The coalition will maintain the level of funding of operating grants to universities and there will be no cuts in university places," the policy document said.

What a difference a big victory makes. Once in office, the conservatives claimed to have found a massive Aus$8 billion (Pounds 34 billion) "fiscal black hole" in Australia's balance of payments. This, they declared, would have to be filled by cutting spending over the next two years.

Since then, however, the economy has sharply improved, foreign debt has fallen and economists have argued over the size of that deficit black hole. But still the government sticks to its line that public outlays must be slashed. Yet so far it has said nothing about the future of universities or how it sees their role as creators of intellectual capital or even as generators of some Aus$2 billion a year to the economy from fee-paying foreign students.

Senator Vanstone, Buddha-like in her impassiveness to criticism, has refused to give any indication of the government's intentions or her own vision - if she has one - for the sector. She has been under constant fire almost from the moment she took over the giant portfolio of employment, education, training and youth affairs, yet her few responses have served only to confuse.

Inexperienced - she had never been a minister in a government before - and lacking knowledge of the area she has responsibility for, she has floundered in Parliament and been evasive in public and in private meetings with the lobby groups.

Faced with a uniquely unified sector, Senator Vanstone has met with the different groups and waited for divisions to appear. Although all 36 vice chancellors agreed among themselves to present a common front, eight formed a so-called group of Great Eight research institutions to put a case for special consideration.

In a special meeting with Senator Vanstone earlier this month, the group argued that attempts to create a strong research base by diverting money to small universities had failed and that full research funding should return to the major institutions. This was the first sign of a break in the alliance. Meantime, most academics have experienced nothing like the current crisis. Under the 13 years of Labor rule, universities enjoyed growth on an unparalleled scale. Between 1983 and 1996, student enrolments jumped from 340,000 to 640,000 - including 50,000 from overseas.

In the same period, Commonwealth funding of higher education rose from Aus$3.2 billion to Aus$5.2 billion in real terms, an increase of 63 per cent, while spending on research leapt by 317 per cent - averaging nearly 13 per cent a year. Rolling triennium funding meant that universities were assured of their government income for three years at a time and could plan accordingly.

Now they have no idea how much financial support they will get from the government until the federal budget is handed down in mid-August, leaving them little time to make changes for 1997. Will they have to cut back on enrolments, reduce staff numbers, close small departments? How, they ask, can they advise students what courses will still be available when school-leavers usually make their choices in late July or early August?

The days under Labor are looking increasingly utopian although, of course, there were always complaints. During the late 1980s, in the time of Labor minister John Dawkins, higher education was thrown into upheaval as the system was transformed. A hierarchical sector of 19 universities and 60 or so colleges of advanced education was turned in the space of four years into a flattened pyramid of 36, mostly jumbo-sized, universities.

College academics who had spent most of their lives teaching were suddenly expected to become researchers as well. Their principals or directors put on vice chancellor gowns and scouted around for postgraduates while university dons looked on appalled.

Nor did the revolution stop there. Rules that restricted universities charging fees for foreign students and postgraduates were lifted - a change that now provides institutions with an additional Aus$1 billion a year from these sources. Regulations that had kept the entrepreneurial tendencies of some vice chancellors in check were abolished and pressure put on the rest to start generating more and more revenue from private sources.

In less than a decade, government grants as a proportion of most universities' total income fell by nearly 40 per cent. Today, many institutions earn almost as much from charges, fees, royalties, investments and donations as they get from the Commonwealth.

The Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) - a deferred payment or graduate tax system that obliges students to meet a substantial portion of the cost of tuition - was also introduced. That money, now worth Aus$450 million a year in payments by students and graduates, flows straight into university coffers.

Despite the expansion of the system, many of the Labor government's decisions were hotly contested. Imposition of certain quality controls was resisted, as were demands that universities meet federal targets for admitting disadvantaged students. Crowded campuses and inadequate facilities caused periodic outcries, while a claim by staff last year for a 15 per cent pay rise has since been backed by stoppages and the threat of ongoing industrial action.

Like Oliver Twist, Australian academics can never get enough; they always want more. They complained recently that since 1987, the higher education sector has suffered effective cuts to operating grants of more than 3 per cent a year - a result of increased student loads and over-quota enrolments without a matching boost in spending.

Under Labor they felt they knew where they stood. Labor had declared its commitment to the "clever country" and backed its rhetoric with billions of dollars of taxpayers' money. The sums may have been inadequate but there was never any suggestion that they would actually fall.

That is no longer the case. Higher education in Australia has entered an era of uncertainty where governments cannot be trusted. Only one thing seems sure: academics and their students will be the ones to suffer.

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