Australian higher education faces another year of cost-cutting and industrial turmoil after the federal government last week rejected the pleas of academics, vice-chancellors and students for more funds.
In its fourth annual budget since being elected in 1996, the Howard government again refused to provide extra grants to allow universities to meet the cost of a 19 per cent staff wage claim.
Instead, the government will press ahead with a further 1 per cent cut to university operating grants in 2000 - having already slashed funding by 6 per cent - and will abolish a Aus$40 million (Pounds 16.6 million) scholarship scheme for needy students established only two years ago.
The Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee said that prime minister John Howard's claims that the budget would secure Australia's education future and the development of its intellectual capital were "sadly overstated".
AVCC acting president Ian Chubb said: "Underlying this budget is an assumption that we can have broadly based, high-quality university teaching and research in the next decade at the same funding level as the reduced levels of the previous decade."
Despite a projected Aus$5.4 billion surplus and a further 3.5 per cent growth in the economy, federal treasurer Peter Costello presented a cautious budget.
While increasing spending on health, private schools and its work-for-the-dole scheme, Mr Costello was less generous with grants to universities. Among the few bright spots was an allocation of Aus$60 million to universities to forge stronger links with industry, an additional Aus$93 million for research infrastructure and an extra Aus$77 million over three years for education faculties to update school teachers' skills as part of the government's literacy and numeracy programme.
The largest spending boost was the promise of more than Aus$600 million over four years for health and medical research. Almost half will go to universities, but the National Tertiary Education Union said it was too thinly spread. NTEU president Carolyn Allport said the extra Aus$93 million for research infrastructure was a 16 per cent fall between 1999 and 2000. The grants for next year were the same as 1996. "The government is not even playing catch-up here," she said.
The National Union of Students said it was disgusted by the government's decision to scrap its merit-based equity scholarship scheme. NUS president Jacob Varghese said: "The message the government is sending to rural, isolated, indigenous and poorer people wishing to study at university is clear: 'We don't care'.
"These groups are already desperately under-represented in higher education. The establishment of the scheme in 1997 was the government's only acknowledgement of the inequities caused by its cuts, increases in tuition fees and the introduction of upfront fees."