Australia’s government has left the door open to future boosts in higher education funding, saying productivity needs will necessitate the sector’s growth.
Education minister Dan Tehan indicated that increases in government support would not be limited to a performance funding scheme starting next year. He told a Brisbane forum that the government was working to “reshape the architecture of the higher education sector”, guided by a “simple motto” of enabling all students “to achieve more from what they learn”.
“If you deliver, we will deliver,” Mr Tehan told university administrators at the Australian Financial Review Higher Education Summit. “Growth will not only be possible – it will be demanded.”
Critics say the performance-based funding scheme, which Mr Tehan said he hoped to finalise in the “coming days”, will not be big enough to accommodate growth in demand. While it is linked to increases in the overall adult population, school-leaver numbers are predicted to rise more than twice as quickly over the next few years.
Mr Tehan addressed this issue directly, acknowledging that the number of 18 year-olds was expected to peak in 2024. “We know we’ve got a major pipeline of students coming through the system,” he said. “This is significant and the system will need to be prepared.”
Asked how he reconciled the call to growth with the government’s freezing of teaching grants two years ago, Mr Tehan suggested that performance funding would not be the only mechanism for increased support. “Over the medium term, we need to position the sector so that it…drives productivity growth,” he said.
“It is the issue that the Australian nation needs to face: what are we going to do to grow our economy into the future? We’re going to need employment-ready graduates. If we can do that, the sector positions itself to be absolutely central.”
Relations between Australia’s government and universities have been frosty following the sector’s fairly public backing of the Labor opposition in the May federal election. Mr Tehan’s latest comments suggest the relationship is improving since his meeting with vice-chancellors at the University of Wollongong in early August.
Representative group Universities Australia vowed to work closely with the government to meet its productivity aims. Chair Deborah Terry said the minister “clearly sees the shared challenge for government, universities, families and students” as an early 2000s birth spike reaches school-leaving age.
Professor Terry also backed Mr Tehan’s call for more collaboration between businesses and universities. “There is a compelling business case for industry to tap into the expertise in our universities – it’s a powerful competitive edge,” she said.
Asked if research funding boosts were also possible, Mr Tehan again left the door ajar. “If we do the hard work and present the case, I would like to say yes,” he told the conference.
“But we’ve got to present to the Australian people – and I’ve got to be able to present to my colleagues – that we will get maximum value for those dollars that we invest. That’s the hard work we have to do as a sector.”
Mr Tehan said he was working with vice-chancellors to develop best practice guidelines for dealing with foreign interference, following cyber-attacks on several universities. He is expected to outline changes to regional higher education provision during a 28 August speech in Canberra.
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