Jury out on Australian funding reforms, cross-bench party says

South Australian party welcomes tweaks to benefit Adelaide universities, but insists it remains uncommitted

September 17, 2020
Adelaide city centre
Source: iStock

A political party with a controlling vote on Australia’s funding reforms remains open-minded about the proposals, even though tweaks to benefit its constituents are under consideration by the government.

South Australian-based party Centre Alliance said it has not decided whether it will support the government’s Job-ready Graduates legislation, which would overhaul course funding arrangements to create more university places at lower grant rates per student.

“We as a team haven’t yet finalised a position,” Centre Alliance education spokeswoman Rebekha Sharkie told Times Higher Education. “But if this legislation does go through, it’s really important that it doesn’t go through as it’s currently presented.”

Ms Sharkie’s comments follow revelations that the federal education department has modelled the costs of adjusting the reforms to benefit South Australian universities.

Education department bureaucrats reluctantly confirmed to a Senate inquiry that the department had advised education minister Dan Tehan about the budgetary implications of reclassifying Adelaide’s public universities as regional institutions.

A regional classification would entitle the three universities to a 3.5 per cent funding boost for most of their undergraduate courses. Universities located in or near the centres of major cities, like the Adelaide universities, have been promised a 1 per cent increase under the changes.

The reforms are supported by the governing Liberal-National coalition and minor party One Nation, but fiercely opposed by Labor and the Greens. The government needs the vote of just one of three cross-bench senators – Centre Alliance’s Stirling Griff, fellow South Australian Rex Patrick or Tasmania’s Jacqui Lambie – to secure parliament’s approval of the legislation.

Ms Sharkie said a 1 per cent growth rate would be “devastating” for South Australia’s universities. Unlike the big eastern seaboard states of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland, South Australia has no regionally based universities, leaving the three metropolitan universities to accommodate the significant unmet demand from the state’s regional communities.

“We would be the only state where all the universities were on that low growth rate,” she said. “I’m very hopeful that our advocacy – raising those concerns on behalf of our universities – is heard and acted upon.”

Ms Sharkie said she did not know whether the Senate would vote in favour of the reform package. “It’s a question of what Jacqui Lambie’s going to do; Rex Patrick as well. There’s three cross-benchers and it only requires one. I don’t have a crystal ball.”

Earlier, the Senate inquiry heard from the vice-chancellors of the state’s three universities. “We have very serious concerns about the new legislation and we have very serious concerns about the status quo,” said interim University of Adelaide vice-chancellor Mike Brooks.

“I wish it were different. I wish universities were funded in a way that I sense they are in Germany, Singapore and the UK.”

Flinders University vice-chancellor Colin Stirling said the state’s situation was unsustainable. “We are seeing huge demand for educational access and we don’t have the capacity to take them,” he said.

“But we shouldn’t be rushing in to approve a package that isn’t yet complete. Last time this happened we took the cuts anyway.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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