Australia’s government and university sector remain bitterly at odds over a package of major proposed changes including funding cuts, as a Senate report confirmed that the future of the plans will come down to the views of populist and nationalist crossbenchers.
The report from the Senate’s Education and Employment Legislation Committee, published on 10 August, recommends that members pass the Liberal-led government’s plans – which are part of its budget and include a 2.5 per cent cut in university funding, a 7.5 per cent increase in tuition fees and plans to allocate 7.5 per cent of funding on a teaching performance-contingent basis. The report said that the plans would “make the funding of the higher education system more transparent and sustainable” and be a contribution to “the government’s promise to bring the budget back to balance”.
But senators on the inquiry committee split along party lines, with opposition Labor and Green members issuing strongly dissenting reports against the plans.
That confirms that crossbenchers in the Senate – the upper house where the government does not have a majority – will determine the future of the plans if they come to a vote.
The battle in Australia, which follows the shelving of plans under the last Liberal-led government to cut funding by 20 per cent and remove caps on tuition fees, emphasises that even a higher education system involving government-provided income-contingent student loans can come under intense funding pressure.
Australia has a system of uncapped student numbers, an example that England has followed. Liberal and National senators issuing the Senate report said that while they “strongly support” Australia’s demand-driven system of uncapped numbers, it “entails significant increased costs” in terms of public funding.
The populist group allied with South Australia senator Nick Xenophon and Pauline Hanson’s anti-immigration One Nation party holds the balance of power in the Senate and the government is reported to need 10 of the 12 crossbench votes to secure passage for the plans.
Universities Australia issued a highly critical response to the Senate report, with chief executive Belinda Robinson saying that the cuts “cannot be absorbed by universities without affecting student services, infrastructure, university staff, and education programmes”.
Andrew Norton, higher education programme director at the Grattan Institute thinktank, was a member of the expert advisory panel convened by the government last year to help it develop a future plan for higher education.
“The Senate committees almost always operate on party lines, and that is what we are seeing here in the content of the report,” he said. “However, the material in the report may influence the cross-bench senators who were not voting members of this inquiry.”
Mr Norton said that while the government had said that it wants to pass budget provisions – including the higher education funding cuts – this year, it was “unlikely to bring on a vote in the Senate unless it thinks that there is some chance of it passing”. He added that prior to the Senate report, “the Xenophon people clearly still had major reservations”.
Mr Norton continued: “I would expect the government to offer some concessions to win over the crossbench parties, but it is hard to predict the final outcome.”
The next sitting dates for Parliament are in the first two weeks of September, offering the first potential opportunity for the government if it does decide to put the plans to a vote.