Australian universities fight to save demand-driven system

Monash v-c warns funding freeze is a threat to social cohesion

February 27, 2018
Margaret Gardner
Margaret Gardner

Australia’s universities are set to mount a rearguard action aimed at resurrecting the country’s uncapped higher education system.

Universities Australia chair Margaret Gardner will argue that the federal government’s December decision to freeze university teaching grants at 2017 levels – in effect ending the demand-driven admissions system introduced in 2012 – is a threat to social cohesion.

The funding freeze will also limit Australia’s national productivity, economic growth and tax base in the decades ahead, Professor Gardner, vice-chancellor of Monash University, will tell the National Press Club in Canberra.

“Having opened the doors of opportunity, our nation cannot afford – socially or economically – to slam them shut once more,” she will say, according to an advance copy of the speech.

The Press Club address is a highlight of UA’s annual conference, which starts in the national capital on 28 February. Tensions are expected to run high this year, after the government cut A$2.2 billion (£1.2 billion) from university funding in December’s mid-year budget update.

The move followed years of failed attempts to legislate funding cuts, with government savings proposals – including reductions to teaching grants and a lowering of the repayment threshold for student loans – getting blocked in the Senate.

The opposition education spokeswoman, Tanya Plibersek, is expected to elaborate on her proposal for a review of post-secondary education when she addresses the conference on 1 March. However, education minister Simon Birmingham has already dismissed suggestions of an inquiry.

Mr Birmingham, who is scheduled to address the conference on 28 February, is expected to renew his call for universities to tighten their spending. However, in an interview with the Australian Financial Review, he signalled that he would soften his focus on universities’ marketing budgets.

The government has scolded universities for using taxpayer funds to market their courses. However, most institutions consider advertising essential to attract vital foreign students.

Mr Birmingham also indicated that he would encourage universities to make the most of their infrastructure by sharing their facilities with further education colleges during summer vacations.

He told a Fulbright Scholarship presentation dinner on 27 February that he had been fascinated by a research project about “the transformative power of digital technology across vocational education”.

While tensions between government and institutions are set to dominate the UA conference, the organisation also has business in its sights.

Professor Gardner will unveil a “business case to business” aimed at reversing Australia’s notoriously poor university-business collaboration, by encouraging companies to partner with universities on research, business innovation and graduate recruitment.

UA will release new modelling suggesting that 16,000 companies that already work with Australian universities earn A$10.6 billion from their collaborations, claiming a return of A$4.50 on every dollar invested.

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