Universities spared nasty surprises in Australian mini-budget

Representative body presses case for education and research spending, as Canberra slashes budget projections

December 16, 2019
Parliament House, Canberra, Australia, government, politics
Source: iStock
Parliament House, Canberra

Australia’s universities have been spared the end-of-year cuts that soured their last two Christmases, with this year’s mini-budget yielding no nasty surprises and a few bonuses.

The mid-year economic and fiscal outlook (MYEFO), released on 16 December, contained almost no funding cuts for tertiary education. This put it in stark contrast with the 2017 MYEFO, when the government announced the abrupt termination of Australia’s demand-driven university funding system, while last year’s update included a shock A$329 million (£169 million) cut to research block grants.

The latest MYEFO outlined almost A$200 million in newly budgeted tertiary education spending, most of it announced over the past half year or so. Much will go to the beleaguered vocational education and training system, including an extra A$50 million for public colleges, A$21 million to strengthen compliance and regulation and A$30 million for a new mining and manufacturing trades school at the dual-sector Central Queensland University.

Measures involving universities include A$15 million for five more “regional university centres”, formerly known as regional study hubs, and A$30 million for the Tasmania Defence Innovation and Design Precinct at the University of Tasmania.  

Representative body Universities Australia said that the extra money for rural study centres was welcome. “But of course they are not a replacement for an enrolment in a funded university place,” said chief executive Catriona Jackson.

MYEFO wiped out almost half of the A$45 billion budget surplus that the government had projected over the next four years, with this figure now revised to about A$24 billion. Treasury documents blame “weak momentum in the global economy as well as domestic challenges such as the devastating effects of drought and bushfires”.

Ms Jackson said that the downgrade demonstrated the need to “keep our foot on the productivity pedal” through education and research spending. “With the global economy facing strengthening headwinds, we need to accelerate into them by investing in our people and research breakthroughs,” she said.

“In challenging economic times, people often seek to get back into education or training to better their chances of getting work. Like successful businesses, as times get tougher, smart governments invest in the future of their people.”

MYEFO also heralded four pilot projects to encourage collaboration between universities and business. They are a hydrogen fuel cell centre in southwestern Victoria, an agribusiness innovation hub on the New South Wales south coast, a digital skills training centre for South Australian shipbuilders and a diploma programme to boost the skills of manufacturing workers.

Education minister Dan Tehan said that the government wanted to harness academic minds to boost business profitability, create jobs and drive productivity gains. “We are supporting universities to work with industry to ensure we have the capacity to turn our discoveries into something that has concrete benefits for Australians,” he said.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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