Australian government hopeful that cuts and fee rises will pass

Minister puts blame on failure to budget for uncapping student numbers, as opposition mounts

May 30, 2017
Australian Parliament, Canberra
Australian Parliament, Canberra

Australia’s education minister is “still hopeful” that a major package of higher education changes, including funding cuts and fees rises, will make it through Parliament.

As part of the package, university funding will be cut by 2.5 per cent and tuition fees will increase by 7.5 per cent. Meanwhile, there are plans to ensure that 7.5 per cent of teaching funding will be “performance-based”.

With Labor and the Greens having said they will oppose the plans, the Liberal-led government will need the support of crossbenchers in the Senate – where it does not have a majority – if the package is to pass.

In an interview with Sky News, education minister Simon Birmingham – who has faced student protests over the plans – was challenged on unanimous opposition from vice-chancellors.

“The higher education reforms seek to put the higher education funding system on a more sustainable platform after enormous growth in recent years: 70 per cent plus growth in the costs around higher education since 2009, more than twice the rate of growth of the economy, vastly above the rate of growth of government revenue,” he replied.

When asked whether the plan was unlikely to pass through Parliament, Mr Birmingham answered: “I’m still hopeful there.”

A few days earlier, Mr Birmingham put the need for savings at the door of the demand-driven system, which uncapped student numbers when introduced by Labor in 2009.

“The decision in 2009 to open up the supply of taxpayer funded places at universities to a demand driven system for those bachelor places has expanded access to universities like never before, and that, of course, is a good thing,” he said in a speech to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia.

But he added that “when the decision was taken at the time to open up the demand-driven system, like so many of the well-intentioned policies of that era, there was little thought as to how it would actually be paid for, particularly as the costs grew quite rapidly”.

Having examined a number of options, “including proposals by some in the university sector for a recapping of places, or for a capping of funding”, Mr Birmingham said the government “decided that it was important to let the market dynamics that come with having a demand-driven system work”.

However, he said “we of course also owe it to the generations of current and future students, whom we’re creating opportunities for, to also have a clear picture and vision of how it is it will be paid for, funded, and sustained well into the future”.

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