Australia pours millions into extra university places

Minister warns that indecision over reforms could ‘sacrifice’ opportunity to reform sector during Covid

September 30, 2020
Dan Tehan, Australia's education minister

The Australian government has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in aid for its higher education sector, which faces huge financial losses from Covid-19.

Dan Tehan, the education minister, announced during the opening of the Australian Financial Review’s Higher Education Summit on Wednesday that A$326 million (£181 million) would be given to create an additional 12,000 university spaces for Australians.

That would come on top of a potential 18,000 new spaces created if the “Job-Ready Graduates” bill is approved, although there has been fierce debate in a Senate committee about the proposed legislation. While the number of student places would be increased, the amount of funding per student could decrease by about 6 per cent.

“An economic recovery will be built on an educated and highly skilled workforce,” Mr Tehan said, adding that “economic downturns lead to upturns in demand for education”.

AFR reported that it is understood the budget may provide A$750 million in immediate HE relief; however it was unclear from Mr Tehan’s comments during his address whether this was separate, new funding. More details are expected on 6 October, when the federal budget will be released.

Universities Australia has estimated that A$16 billion in revenue will be lost between June 2020 and 2023 because of Covid.

Also on 30 September, the government secured higher education funding over the next three years and made amendments to grant scheme guidelines.

“The funding guarantee underpins the A$2 billion funding increase for universities from this year to 2024 and will give universities funding certainty as they focus on domestic students and support Australia’s Covid-19 recovery,” a government statement said.  

A discussion paper on the National Priorities and Industry Linkage Fund (NPILF) was also released for public consultation. That plan could potentially distribute A$900 million over four years in block grants to universities, with a strong focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Australia’s budgetary woes, including an estimated A$200 billion deficit, are worrying for the higher education sector, which has already lost 11,000 jobs since the onset of the Covid pandemic. The Group of Eight, which comprises the top research universities, said that more than 4,000 research contracts, for short or non-permanent work, would expire this year. 

Mr Tehan said that now was the time to continue reform of the higher education sector so it better suited Australia’s economic needs.

“For the last two years, we have been making the sector more flexible, more adaptable, more integrated with industry and more resilient,” he said. “We cannot sacrifice the opportunity and benefit that a higher education provides to individuals and the nation at the altar of collective indecision or timidity.”  

He stressed growth in domestic enrolments, particularly in disadvantaged geographic areas, and flexibility in providing in micro-credentials via short courses, which would give practical skills to students and an income stream to universities.

Catriona Jackson, chief executive of Universities Australia, said that the A$326 million pledge was a “really good development,” even if the larger financial picture was less than rosy.

“We are always conscious of making a good argument to the taxpayer. We are accountable to the people who fund us,” she said.

However, Mehreen Farqui, a Green senator, said that Mr Tehan’s announcement was an “injection of last-minute cash” and a “tiny band-aid on an open wound”, which was announced just “as the disastrous ‘job-ready’ bill hangs in the balance”.

She recommended that, when Covid-19 hit, the government should have provided a rescue package and made university free for all students.

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

new
Got to keep this money and places within universities and avoid being sucked in by dodgy private pathways providers such as Navitas. They need to recruit their own international students and stop taking govt money.

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