Ex-minister questions scrapping of Australian university fund

Julie Bishop tells Times Higher Education interview that Australia’s universities should rank better

October 21, 2019
Julie Bishop
Source: Getty

Australia’s former education minister would “fight tooth and nail” to replenish the multibillion-dollar research infrastructure fund that her erstwhile political partners have just scrapped, given the chance.

Julie Bishop said that the Higher Education Endowment Fund, which she and then treasurer Peter Costello established in 2007, was one of the crowning achievements of her 20-year political career.

Renamed the Education Investment Fund after the Labor Party won government soon afterwards, the fund helped transform university campuses. But it was earmarked for closure after the Coalition regained power in 2013.

Years of senate opposition to its abolition ended on 17 October when parliament passed legislation to purloin the EIF’s remaining A$3.9 billion (£2.1 billion) to finance a disaster response fund.

In an onstage interview with Times Higher Education at the Australian International Education Conference, Ms Bishop said she had no regrets about her political career or her decision to end it this year. Asked whether she regretted the infrastructure fund’s axing, she said: “I didn’t do it, so I can’t regret it.

“If I [were] still education minister I’d be fighting tooth and nail to ensure that the HEEF grew so large that we lived off the interest,” she added. “That was the whole plan…a taxpayer-funded endowment to ensure that our universities outpaced others.

“It truly troubles me that we don’t have one of our universities in the top 20. We are a top 20 economy. On every social, economic, political indicator that counts Australia’s in the top 20. Not in [higher] education. That’s not good enough.”

Ms Bishop told the conference that constructing the New Colombo Plan, the outward mobility scheme that has galvanised overseas study by young Australians, had been her “first action” after being installed as foreign minister in 2013. “Do I take credit? You bet!”

She lamented the rise of populism as people turned against globalisation over fears of losing their jobs. “Populism is unfortunate because it never addresses the consequences of short-term action,” she said, adding that Brexit typified the “unnerving” volatility causing “unease and uncertainty” around the world.

Nevertheless, Brexit would have an upside for Australian education. “We’ve always sort of seen the European Union through the prism of the UK. Now there’s a real opportunity for Australia to work with the remaining 27 EU members and develop international education links with them separately,” Ms Bishop said.

The AIEC conference also heard from Brooke Hartigan, minister counsellor for education and research at the Australian embassy in Beijing, who said that she had seen “an improvement in [Australia’s] engagement” in China, despite a war of words between the countries over espionage and alleged influencing of international students.

Trade tensions with the US might be playing a role. “There is a sense…that attention might be moving, in an educational sense, from US partnerships to other partners. And Australia is very much in line of sight,” Ms Hartigan said.

The event also heard that Perth, the country’s fourth largest city, was negotiating to be deemed a regional centre in a bid to benefit from new federal visa and scholarship incentives designed to attract students to regional Australia.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: ‘I would fight for more funding’

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Reader's comments (1)

More troubling is when you hear the current Minister for Education describing the decision to axe the fund as a great win - are they not supposed to advocate *for* their portfolio?

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