For the first time in a decade, a major political party in Australia has placed education at the top of its election agenda. Labor leader Kim Beazley has promised a Labor government would spend almost A$1 billion (£350 million) to improve university teaching and research over the next four to five years by employing more academics and paying them higher salaries.
Education was not among the main topics addressed by Liberal leader John Howard at his campaign launch. Mr Howard concentrated on explaining how his conservative government was contributing to the war against terrorism and assuring voters that Australia would not abandon its attempts to stem the tide of would-be immigrants arriving by boat. He said little about the conservatives' third-term agenda for schools or universities.
Education minister David Kemp later restated policies he announced 11 months ago. Releasing an "innovation action plan" at the time, Mr Howard committed A$2.9 billion over five years to research and development, of which some A$1.4 billion would go to universities.
But whichever way the polling goes, the money will not start flowing until the last two years of the period and then only after another election is held. Extra income will not make up for what Mr Howard's government cut from federal spending on universities in 1996.
Ruth Neumann, associate professor in higher education and management at Macquarie University in Sydney, said: "These (promised) gains do not even go half way to replacing what has been removed in overall education expenditure in the past five years, let alone go any way to matching the massive increases announced in recent years in other OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries.
"Similar massive increases in public investment in Australia have, however, been advocated only recently by Rupert Murdoch."
As a result of higher tuition fees, enrolments by Australian students have begun to fall. To counter this, Labor has promised to create 100,000 "online" university places at half the cost to students under the Higher Education Contribution Scheme and to make it easier for all students to repay their Hecs debt.
Although Labor will not change the system of differential Hecs under which students pay higher fees if they take more costly subjects, it will increase the income threshold for Hecs debt repayments. At present, students and graduates face a tax surcharge if their income exceeds A$22,900 a year - well below average earnings. Under Labor, the threshold will be raised by A$10,000 over four years starting in 2003.
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