More than a year ago, Australia’s federal government released the recommendations of a report it had commissioned on base funding of higher education. Among other findings, the report called for a boost in government spending on university teaching and learning.
But last Monday – a public holiday to celebrate the founding of an English colony on Australian shores in 1788 – the government quietly announced that it had rejected the report’s key recommendations, in particular that all students should pay 40% of the cost of their courses and the government 60%.
“The current pattern of student contributions appears to have developed incrementally without a consistent underlying rationale. Student contributions range between 19% and 84% of the base funding amount for different disciplines, with fees varying from A$4,355 to A$9,080 [US$4,540 to US$9,470] per year,” the report stated.
“Some students with little prospect of high graduate incomes pay 52% of the base funding amount, while those in some high-cost disciplines with high potential graduate salaries pay 32%. Other students in lower cost disciplines pay 84%.”
Nearly two years ago, Higher Education Minister Senator Chris Evans commissioned a former South Australian politician and medical researcher, Dr Jane Lomax-Smith, to head a committee of three to investigate funding of university teaching and learning.
The committee handed down its report in December 2011 but it was another 13 months before Evans released the government’s decision.
Given the time lag between the report’s release and the government’s answer, reactions from across the higher education sector were more resigned than outraged, with the National Tertiary Education Union describing it as a non-response.
Union president Jeannie Rea said the government had failed to address the major recommendations, especially in relation to the need for increased funding of federally supported student places.
“The government response suggests that universities need to ‘constrain costs and look for ways to be more efficient’,” Rea said. “But the reality is that universities are already overworking staff to deal with the booming numbers of students and the failure of funding per student place to keep pace.”
She said excessive hours and workloads had become the norm among academics and, to cope with the funding gap, universities were increasingly employing academic and professional staff as casuals or on limited term contracts.
Universities Australia Chief Executive Belinda Robinson said the response was a disappointing dismissal of the report’s findings that public investment in universities was “under done”, yet the government had given no commitment to increase investment in universities.
“This is despite the review’s finding that increased funding is needed ‘to maximise the sector’s potential to contribute to national productivity and economic growth’,” Robinson said.
She said since the release of the report and its finding that "the time is right" for university funding reform, a further A$1 billion had been stripped from university research programmes.
“Lomax-Smith’s recommendations to correct serious underfunding, including for specific disciplines, has also been overlooked. At the very time the government is placing education and research at the centre of its agenda for economic and industrial renewal, underfunding our universities puts in jeopardy Australia’s ability to remain internationally competitive.”
Robinson and Rea both pointed to the latest OECD benchmarking showing that Australia was significantly under-investing in tertiary education compared to other countries – with only 0.8% of its GDP going on public expenditure on higher education compared with an average of 1.1% across the OECD.
Had the review’s recommendation regarding unifying course costs been adopted, some students would have paid less than they do now while many others, notably in education, engineering, medicine, nursing and science, would have paid markedly more.
But Evans said the government would not increase the amounts students had to pay for their courses, arguing that an “unprecedented level of investment in higher education” had enabled tens of thousands more students to attend university and had also lifted funding per university student place.
"The Labor government has invested more than A$43.2 billion in core university funding from 2008 to 2011. From 2012 to 2015, we will invest a further A$58.9 billion – more than double the level of funding under the last four years of the [previous Conservative] government.”
“Universities and [vocational education colleges] across the country have benefited from A$5 billion in capital funding to modernise research facilities, libraries and lecture halls. Improved indexation will provide an additional A$3 billion to universities from 2011 to 2015 and, in 2013, it is delivering A$642 million in additional funding.”
Evans said that this unprecedented level of investment had enabled more students to attend university and had also lifted funding per university student place.
* Addressing the National Press Club on Wednesday, Prime Minister Julie Gillard surprised the nation by announcing that an election would be held on 14 September – eight months away. To the delight of the higher education sector, Gillard focused some of her comments on the importance to Australia's future of "winning the education race".
“I am determined that every child in this country gets the chance at life that can only come if he or she gets a world-class education,” she said. “I believe in this as a moral cause – a crusade – but I also believe that our future prosperity is inextricably linked to us winning the education race.”
If the polls of the past year are any indication, September will see a change in government, with a new administration headed by the deeply conservative Opposition leader Tony Abbott. Higher education is highly unlikely to fare as well under his team.
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