Australian universities step up pressure over budget cuts

Higher education access provides ‘inoculation against political dislocation’, Universities Australia tells ministers

December 13, 2017
Australian Parliament, Canberra
Australian Parliament, Canberra

Australian universities have maintained their barrage against the government’s plans to cut their funding, warning that such moves would harm productivity and higher education access that “inoculates” against “political dislocation”.

Universities Australia’s submission ahead of the 2018-19 budget, to be delivered in May next year, calls on the government to “reconsider the returns on the investment in a strong, vibrant university and research system”.

The government had made plans, which were part of its last budget, for a A$2.8 billion (£1.7 billion) or 2.5 per cent cut in higher education funding, a 7.5 per cent increase in tuition fees and the creation of a performance-related funding stream covering 7.5 per cent of total support for the sector.

Although the plans were thwarted by opposition in the Senate, the government is said to be considering non-legislative options for pushing through the cuts, including by reductions to research grants and to a programme helping low-income students access higher education. Another option said to be under consideration is freezing student numbers, which would effectively end Australia’s demand-driven system of uncapped numbers.

Universities Australia’s budget submission urges the government “to defer [its] ‘performance-funding’ scheme pending comprehensive consultation with key stakeholders”, “to retain the demand-driven system” and “to, at least, maintain funding for the Commonwealth Grant Scheme, Research Block Grants, and the Higher Education Participation and Partnership Program at 2017 levels indexed for 2018”.

The submission calls the “nation’s investment in broad access to higher education” a “powerful inoculation against entrenched disadvantage – and the political and economic dislocation that inevitably results”.

It adds: “One of the fundamental roles of a national government is to lay the foundations for growth and prosperity. The contribution of universities to productivity gains in our nation’s economy and workplaces over the past three decades have been profound.”

“A funding freeze would effectively slash the number of people who have the chance of a university education, and cuts to programs that support disadvantaged students will make it harder for Australians from poor backgrounds just to get their foot in the door,” said Belinda Robinson, Universities Australia chief executive.

“That won’t just be a blow for students and universities – it would be a blow to the government’s budget repair ambitions and to the economy which now needs more – not fewer – skilled workers.”

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