Poll fears give dons high hopes

March 30, 2001

Australian academics have called for a A$1 billion (£347 million) a year boost in federal spending on universities. They believe that their government's lowest opinion poll rating since it came into office five years ago gives them the best chance of influencing the annual budget funding decisions.

In May, the conservative government will hand down its final budget before facing the electors in November. The government of prime minister John Howard is in panic mode following surprise Labor Party victories in state government elections in Western Australia and Queensland, and having lost a blue-ribbon federal seat at a by-election in Brisbane last week.

The National Tertiary Education Union considers it has the best prospect in years of the government responding to its call for a 20 per cent increase in university funding.

In a budget submission, the union says there is a growing consensus that university access and quality are in crisis. It says that the government's policy reversal, shown by a promise last January to spend almost A$3 billion on an innovation strategy, is insufficient.

"The scale of the package required to restore the viability of an accessible and quality tertiary education sector far exceeds the commitments made in Backing Australia's Ability," the NTEU submission states.

"In contrast to the recent realisation of the need to publicly invest in research and development, the Howard government has put in place policies which have directly reduced access and quality."

The union submission puts forward a dozen recommendations ranging from the proposal for a A$1 billion increase in university grants to setting a single tuition charge of A$2,644 a year for students under the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (Hecs).

If the union's recommendations are adopted, the government would face an additional outlay on higher education of about A$2.6 billion a year - a 50 per cent increase on current allocations.

The union argues, however, that the "stripping of public resources" has created the crisis and that this is unprecedented in the history of federal involvement in higher education.

Although the damage done to accessibility and quality in the Howard government's first years was severe, the submission says the full ramifications of the changes to funding and fee structures have yet to be felt.

One significant impact has been the inability of Australians to access equally the social and economic advantages that flow from participation in higher education.

Cuts to operating grants have disproportionately affected students wanting to undertake postgraduate courses. In 1996, 77 per cent of coursework postgraduates deferred their discounted fees through Hecs, but by 2000 this had fallen to 38 per cent - with the 62 per cent remainder paying full fees on enrolment.

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