Dons rail against measly offering

June 1, 2001

The Australian government's last budget before federal elections due later this year has left higher education lobby groups totally underwhelmed.

With polls predicting defeat, the government reduced taxes, allocated more money to pensioners and increased spending on welfare. But it offered universities little that had not already been promised.

Vice-chancellors, academics, students and science organisations expressed disappointment at the government's failure to tackle the serious financial problems facing universities.

Apart from a small increase to boost funded student places at regional institutions, the budget provided no extra money for university operating grants.

Critics noted that previous government cuts to higher education spending and the lack of funding to cover staff salary rises meant university cost structures had risen 20 per cent since the Howard government was elected in 1996. Over the same period, public funding per student has fallen by A$250 (£90).

David Kemp, federal education minister, claimed the government was providing almost A$1 billion in additional funding for a postgraduate loans scheme.

But because students have to repay the loan, the net effect will be a gain for the government of A$36 million over five years.

The Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee said more money was needed urgently. AVCC chief executive officer John Mullarvey said vice-chancellors had called for a 20 per cent increase in operating grants over five years.

He said that this input would "begin the process of improving teaching and learning outcomes, as they must if we are to reap the benefit of new discoveries".

David Denham, vice-president of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies, said the government had failed to deal with outstanding issues such as proper funding for the sector and for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.

"Science and research are too important to be decided in the hurly-burly of daily politics," Dr Denham said.

Australia was well below the average Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development spending on research and development, he said.

Science groups estimate that Australia needs to invest an extra A$13 billion over the next five years to reach the OECD average.

Dr Kemp said the government had secured Australia's future position as a world player in research with an "innovation-driven higher education system".

But the National Union of Students claimed that the budget merely demonstrated the government's plans to withdraw fully from publicly funded education.

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