AUSTRALIAN vice-chancellors are mounting a big publicity campaign for the October 3 general election to get voters' backing for a bigger universities' budget.
The AVCC said it would be advertising in newspapers, magazines and radio, together with direct mailings in key areas. Tens of thousands of brochures will also be distributed.
AVCC president John Niland said the vice-chancellors were campaigning "on behalf of young Australians who are going to fall behind the rest of the world unless our politicians can be induced to rectify the situation".
"Poor funding means poor universities," Professor Niland said. "If we allow that to happen to this country then we are consigning our children to a second-rate economic future."
The National Tertiary Education Union president, Carolyn Allport, said the AVCC had never taken a strong position in a federal election before and it was an indication of the funding crisis.
"It's also a courageous step, given the federal government has been doing all in its power to deny the problems caused by declining funding and increased student charges," Dr Allport said.
The National Union of Students, which has been strident in its criticisms of conservative prime minister John Howard's education policy, said that while it would not be advocating a vote for any particular party, the union would "work tirelessly throughout the campaign to spell out to every single university student the record of the Howard government on higher education".
Professor Niland said that by 2000 government funding for higher education places would be at its lowest level since 1985. Research funding would fall by 21 per cent over the next two years and, despite a Aus$1 billion plus (Pounds 345 million) contribution to the economy, support was cut for international education.
After the coalition government slashed spending on universities, vice-chancellors had to market their wares even harder in Asia to attract students. Overseas fee income now adds more than $600 million a year to university coffers and the Asian currency collapses could have a dire effect.
Despite a 46-seat majority in the House of Representatives, Mr Howard faces a tough battle. He is widely perceived to be a weak and indecisive leader and the cuts his government has imposed have alienated many supporters.
Polls show the Labor Party is either ahead of the conservatives or has an equal amount of support. But Labor has still to overcome widespread ill-feeling engendered by the Keating government which led to its defeat in 1996 after 13 years in power. Leader Kim Beazley has promised to make education a priority.
The AVCC has unveiled a "10-Point Plan" to produce a strong university system. It calls for holding funding at least to 1998 levels, loans for fee-paying students, government investment in research to at least 1998 levels, money for high-quality staff to match economic changes, and an effective international student exchange programme.