TWO OUT of three Australians believe the government should spend more on higher education and 85 per cent agree extra funding should be given to university teaching and research.
A national poll commissioned by the Australian Vice Chancellors' Committee found the vast majority of Australians believe spending on universities should either be increased or not reduced. Only 4 per cent said it should be cut.
Even nine out of ten supporters of the conservative government said that spending should be maintained or increased. More than half said funding should be raised.
A random sample of 1,050 Australians in all states and territories were interviewed in what the AVCC said was the first major research into community attitudes to higher education in nearly ten years.
A report of the survey says that:
* One in two Australians favoured increased government spending on universities; 13 per cent said any rise should come from student contributions; 13 per cent wanted more from employers and 18 per cent backed a combination of the three.
* Almost two out of three people who support the conservative parties believe the government should be either the sole or a joint source of higher education funding.
* University research is highly prized by Australians and there is "emphatic recognition of the link between research and Australia's future economic prosperity".
But the report also refers to "a level of scepticism about Australia's ability to convert research ideas into economically finished products" because of a lack of support from government and investment from industry.
While the independence of universities was seen as one of their most valuable qualities, the survey found a reasonable level of support for funding from the private sector.
Respondents were not asked if they would be prepared to pay more tax to meet the cost of increased government spending. But Australians generally think they already pay too much tax.
The government of prime minister John Howard wants to offer tax cuts before it goes to the polls later next year. Neither Mr Howard nor David Kemp, his new education minister, have given any indication that they believe the cuts imposed on higher education in the last two budgets were excessive.
This, however, did not stop the National Tertiary Education Union from welcoming the survey findings and warning that the government faced significant voter opposition to its cuts.