Australia’s opposition has asked universities to lobby on its behalf, saying that a change of government would leave them billions of dollars richer.
In a speech to a Melbourne conference on 29 August, shadow education minister Tanya Plibersek bristled at suggestions that her Labor Party’s higher education policies differed little from those of the governing Liberal-National coalition. She said Labor’s commitment to restore the demand-driven higher education system – which the government ended last December – would deliver universities almost A$10 billion (£5.7 billion) of additional funding over the next 10 years.
“This is one of the biggest economic investments that we have made as an opposition,” she told the Australian Financial Review Higher Education Summit. “There’s a $10 billion dollar difference on the table, right now.
“We want to guarantee that additional funding, but we want to make sure that your sector is part of telling people that there is a difference. It’s not enough for me to say it – as custodians of the sector, you have to say it too.”
The government plans to allow limited growth in teaching grants, which it froze just before Christmas, from 2020. But its policies are now under a cloud, after internal turmoil last week triggered a leadership change and Cabinet reshuffle.
Long-standing education minister Simon Birmingham, who was scheduled to address the conference on 28 August, cancelled after being ousted from his portfolio. New education minister Dan Tehan declined to take his place.
Ms Plibersek said the sector had been saddled with too much change. She promised to end it by introducing three-year funding agreements.
“We want to make sure that the sector has some stability, so you don’t get a message in December that university funding is going to be cut in March. I don’t know how you begin to cope with that sort of uncertainty – we know you’re planning in multiple years, not months.”
She dismissed suggestions that a resumption of the demand-driven system could trigger a budget blowout, saying the proportion of people seeking university degrees had “pretty much topped out”. New enrolments over the past few years had been in line with population growth, she said.
She also committed the opposition to a new tertiary education participation target, covering both degrees and vocational credentials, to replace the Bradley higher education review goal for 40 per cent of adults to have degrees. “The fact that we had targets coming out of the Bradley review really did drive policy change, but I don’t think we can stop at upgraded university attainment targets,” she said.
“I’ve got experience as a minister in a number of portfolios. I can tell you that if you don’t have a target, the focus of the public servants implementing your agenda is not as sharp as it might be.”
The target, along with details of the demand-driven system, will be determined by a post-school review that Labor has pledged to conduct if it wins government. Ms Plibersek did not rule out performance measures to guide funding, but said Labor would not take a “big stick” approach.
“The best way to enhance performance is transparency and accountability,” she told the forum.