Australia’s university funding reforms ‘stuck in limbo’

Senate adjourns before voting on higher education bill, meaning students have to apply without knowing what fees will be

September 15, 2017
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Australian students face having to apply to university without knowing what tuition fees they will be charged because the government’s higher education bill remains stuck in limbo.

The Liberal-led administration’s plans, which are part of its budget, include a 2.5 per cent cut in sector funding, which universities say will cost them A$2.8 billion (£1.7 billion), and a 7.5 per cent increase in tuition fees.

Although the measures have passed the House of Representatives, where the government has a majority, ministers declined to put the bill to a vote in the Senate, where it will need the support of cross-benchers, before the chamber adjourned on 14 September.

The Senate will not sit again until the week of 16 October. Universities oppose the reforms, which also include plans to allocate 7.5 per cent of funding on the basis of teaching performance.

The continuing uncertainty about the sector’s funding future is troubling institutions as well.

A key worry is that the deadline for university applications is this month, and early round offers are due to start being sent out, but there is still no decision over what fees will be charged.

Universities Australia has called on the government to postpone the planned implementation date of the funding reforms for a year from the current target date of 1 January.

“It’s not fair to expect students to apply for university without knowing what fees they will pay in 2018 or even whether the subjects they hope to study will still be available by the time they arrive,” said Belinda Robinson, the organisation’s chief executive. Ms Robinson said that she was “already hearing of double-digit declines in mature-age student applications”.

The government’s hopes of swiftly steering the reforms through the Senate suffered a blow when the education spokeswoman for the Nick Xenophon Team, which has three senators, described them as a “blunt and deep cut that will mean job losses to the sector and higher education costs for students”.

With Labor and Green members opposed, the government is reported to need 10 of the 12 cross-bench votes to secure passage for the plans.

“The Nick Xenophon Team is not convinced that this bill as it currently stands will assist the sector to reform,” said Rebekha Sharkie, NXT’s education spokeswoman.

Meanwhile The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the support of another cross-bench senator, Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm, was contingent on the reforms not being watered down.

Vicki Thomson, chief executive of the Group of Eight universities, said that the damaging impact of the cuts meant that having them blocked in the Senate remained the “best option”.

But she added: “The fact that we are prepared to deal with uncertainty and the status quo shows the depth to which good public policy formulation has sunk in Australia.”

Andrew Norton, higher education programme director at the Grattan Institute thinktank, said that he expected that the government “will look for some deal”. However, he added that this was “not mutually exclusive with other measures to reduce future spending that do not need parliamentary support”.

Simon Birmingham, the education minister, said that he would “continue the constructive discussions I’ve been having with my Senate colleagues ahead of Parliament resuming in October”.

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