Australian opposition promises to restore demand-driven system

But Labor’s Tanya Plibersek fuels concerns that funding could be diverted to further education

March 1, 2018
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Restricted access: the state was accused of treating universities with ‘hostility’

Australia’s opposition has pledged to reinstate the country’s demand-driven higher education system and to “restore stability” by funding universities in three-year blocks.

However, universities could also find themselves fighting for funds with Australia’s beleaguered technical and further education (TAFE) colleges if Labor wins office.

The opposition’s education spokeswoman, Tanya Plibersek, said that TAFEs had not shared in the revenue windfall that universities had enjoyed under the demand-driven admissions system. “The funding growth for universities contrasts very sharply to what’s happened in TAFE,” she told Universities Australia’s conference in Canberra.

“We want a strong and vibrant TAFE and vocational education system that works collaboratively with our world-class university sector. There is a great deal of work to be done to repair the damage to vocational education and training, with declining funding and student numbers at a time when skills shortages beset the Australian economy.”

The comments could fuel concerns about TAFE funds being restored at universities’ expense, after Ms Plibersek announced a “once in a generation review” of Australian tertiary education last month.

However, Ms Plibersek said that the government had treated universities with “outright hostility” by imposing a freeze on teaching grants in December’s mid-year budget update, which effectively ended the demand-driven system by leaving universities that expanded or even maintained their student numbers facing a cut in real-terms income.

She said that Simon Birmingham, the education minister, had largely bypassed parliament to limit funding after his earlier reform package had been blocked in the Senate. “It’s a brutal and reckless way of achieving savings,” she said.

While insisting that Labor was “absolutely committed” to the demand-driven system, Ms Plibersek did not specifically commit to reversing the funding freeze – a move demanded by Universities Australia chair Margaret Gardner, and quickly ruled out by Mr Birmingham.

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Ms Plibersek also did not spell out the subsidy levels that universities could expect under a Labor government, saying that financing models would be considered in the coming review.

Labor also has recent form in threatening university funding. In 2013, Julia Gillard’s government outlined a plan to remove A$2.3 billion (£1.3 billion)  from the higher education budget to pay for schooling reforms – a proposal that Labor subsequently blocked in opposition.

In her address, Ms Plibersek vowed to “continue to fight against cuts at our universities” and to boost funding certainty. “You can’t make decisions if you don’t know if you can afford to turn on the lights in January,” she said.

“We’ll end the threat of last-minute, one-year, totally inadequate funding agreements. If I’m lucky enough to become minister for higher education, I will guarantee stable, three-year funding agreements.”

Ms Plibersek also signalled tough action against harassment and assault on campus, in the wake of a report on dangerous and degrading initiation rituals that has dominated the Australian media since its release.

“The Red Zone report contains example after example of appalling behaviour at some university residential colleges,” she said. “[When] I was at university about 30 years ago, we were pretty much having these same conversations, the same kind of complaints, and the same kind of responses from residential colleges and universities.

“The time for excuses is over. If university residential colleges can’t provide a safe environment, universities should make them. If universities can’t ensure that colleges are safe, they should sever links with them. If some residential colleges and universities refuse to treat this seriously, then governments must make them.”

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