Australia’s tertiary education minister, Craig Emerson, announced over the weekend that A$2.3 (£1.6) billion in cuts would be imposed over the next four years to help pay for school reforms.
He said A$900 million would be raised through an “efficiency dividend” of 2 per cent imposed on university funding in 2014, falling to 1.25 per cent in 2015.
A further A$1.2 billion would be saved by requiring students to pay back “start up” scholarships, and $230 million by abolishing a 10 per cent discount currently given to students who pay fees upfront.
The announcement is a huge blow to Universities Australia, which earlier this year launched a A$5 million lobbying campaign ahead of September’s federal election to highlight the need to invest in higher education.
Universities Australia’s chair, Glyn Davis, vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, said the cuts came on top of the A$1billion that was “stripped out” of Australia’s research budget at the end of last year.
He admitted that Australian universities had enjoyed a “very substantial period of growth in income” in recent years, during which the Labor government had removed the cap on undergraduate numbers. He also admitted the government was “confronting difficult economic circumstances”.
But he was concerned about the long-term impact of the cuts – which will see average per-student funding fall from A$9,400 to A$9,200 – would have on Australian universities’ ability to “meet the high standards of educational quality expected of them”.
“For students, the loss of a range of income support measures will be compounded by the inevitable withdrawal of existing academic and professional support services provided by universities,” he said.
Mr Emerson declined to rule out further cuts, but said the uncapped system would remain. The “efficiency dividend” would only see growth in university budgets “moderate”, he added.
He also defended the use of the money saved to implement the recommendation of a government-convened commission on school funding chaired by businessman and University of New South Wales chancellor David Gonski.
“To have the best universities we have to have the best school classrooms…We are implementing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make sure that every young child in Australia gets a high-quality education,” he said.
Mr Gonski said his commission was not asked to consider how his recommendations should be funded.
“As chancellor of…New South Wales, I…will continue to advocate that increases be made in funding the university sector,” he said.
Jeannie Rae, president of the National Tertiary Education Union, expressed fears university managers would react to the cuts by trimming jobs.
“Not only have universities not employed sufficient staff to match the rise in student numbers, but too many new and replacement appointments are casual or short term,” she said.
Australian universities are currently beginning a series of negotiations with unions on new “enterprise agreements”, which govern staff terms and conditions. The negotiations at the University of Sydney have already led to strike action.