Election outcome – More gloom for universities

Academics and professional staff inhabiting Australia’s 39 public universities could hardly be more pessimistic about the future as the nation head to the polls next Saturday to elect a new federal government.

It now seems certain the conservative parties, headed by controversial Opposition leader Tony Abbott, will replace the Labor Party administration that has held office since 2007. The only other certainty for higher education is that no matter who wins, the prospects are grim.

Just before the last election, in 2010, Abbott as new Opposition leader released a “plan for real action to higher education”.

Its main promise was to scrap a Labor programme aimed at increasing the participation of poor students, but it also included cutting an equity programme by 70%, reintroducing full-fee places for local students and, possibly but not stated, increasing the tuition charges imposed under the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, or HECS.

As a sweetener to potentially disgruntled students, the plan also offered an HECS discount to anyone undertaking some form of community service, although the discount had an A$2,000 (US$1,780) limit per student each year and was restricted to just 1,000 students – out of the 800,000 enrolled.

Political backdrop

An unconvinced electorate gave both sides an almost equal number of seats and Labor assumed government only with the support of four independents.

But Labor won no friends in higher education when it began cutting spending on universities over the following three years until more than A$4 billion (US$3.56 billion) had been lopped off various programmes.

In one of the more bizarre political twists in Australian electoral history, that last election saw then prime minister Julia Gillard confront an equally uninspiring Opposition leader in Tony Abbott. Gillard had just toppled the former prime minister, the highly popular Kevin Rudd, and nearly lost the election as a result.

In June this year, Rudd returned the favour and had Gillard dumped by a majority of the Labor caucus who feared an electoral wipe-out if the deeply unpopular Gillard remained.

Now Rudd faces Abbott but the prime minister’s former popularity has waned and the serious losses feared by the caucus under Gillard now look likely to occur under her replacement.

Little mention of higher education

In the current campaign, neither side has so far mentioned higher education. University staff can only guess the future on the basis of what Labor has done over the past three years and what the Conservatives promised last time.

“Since I started teaching in a university 20 years ago, my tutorial class sizes have doubled and face-to-face class time with students has halved,” says Jeannie Rea, president of the National Tertiary Education Union.

“This is a consequence of declining public investment, coupled with the likelihood that half the time students are relying on academics, employed casually by the hour, who do not have access to university resources like their colleagues in more secure positions.”

Labor and Conservative records

Rea says Labor came to government in 2007 with grand plans for higher education, recognising the critical role of universities and graduates in its vision for a prosperous, inclusive and civilised Australia.

“The opening up of university places, the goal of increasing the numbers and diversity of graduates along with other commitments to expand education and research in particular disciplines and in regional Australia were widely supported,” she says.

“But while these initiatives increased the overall higher education commitment, the funding per student did not increase by even the initial 10% considered essential by the government’s own Bradley review.”

Over the past two years, however, Labor abandoned its promise of more funding and instead imposed a series of cuts amounting to more than A$4 billion. Worse still, Rea says, the Opposition’s record is one of even deeper cuts.

“Last time the Coalition [of two conservative parties] was in government, the cuts to higher education started as soon as they could get their hands on the budget.

“In their 1996 budget statement, the Howard government announced cuts to university operating grants of 1% in 1997, 3% in 1998 and 1% in 1999; plus significant increases in HECS and introduction of three separate HECS bands; removal of the prohibition on tuition fees for Australian undergraduate students; and abolition of the discretionary funding programme which was then worth more than $100 million.”

The future?

Simon Marginson, a professor of higher education at the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne, said the Opposition had yet to become “seriously interested in higher education and research policy.

“Given the higher education funding settings, and the overall fiscal outlook under a Coalition government, it looks likely that student contributions will be increased. This in turn will place pressure on the income-contingent loans system, as the unpaid debt will mount,” Marginson said.

“The temptation will be there for the Coalition to drop the threshold at which income-contingent repayment commences. This would have negative effects, in discouraging participation by poorer families.

“But such effects may be overtaken by a more fundamental restructuring of the political economy of the sector – we can expect the Group of Eight universities to press for fee deregulation and that could become the primary debate in the first term of a Coalition government.”

Marginson said the Coalition could be more generous with research funding than with subsidising student places: “A billion dollars goes further in research than it does in the much larger-scale enterprise of university teaching.

“Certainly, under the former Conservative prime minister John Howard, research was better supported than teaching and, to some extent, Labor has dropped the ball on university research funding, creating a space for the Coalition to make a positive contribution without breaking the bank.”

Universities plea

In a separate plea to all parties contesting the election, higher education’s major representative group, Universities Australia, declared that universities were critical to the transformation of the national economy “and to the social and cultural wellbeing of its citizens”.

“University graduates contribute to economic growth, producing more than A$170 billion worth of output annually and paying A$50 billion each year in income taxes,” Universities Australia says in a release.

“International education is the largest services export earner in Australia, second only to extractive commodities such as coal and iron ore [and it] supports 127,000 jobs of which 88,000 are outside the education sector.”

The statement says that as the Australian economy “transitions from its heavy reliance on the resources sector, universities will play an ever increasing role in the transformation of the economy, by creating a highly skilled workforce as well as building competitiveness and global position through research and innovation”.

But Universities Australia says the ability of universities to contribute to the nation’s ongoing economic and social development risks being undermined by the relatively low levels of public investment. In fact, Australia invests just 0.76% of gross domestic product in public expenditure on tertiary education compared with an OECD average of 1.12%.

Another organisation, Science & Technology Australia, or STA, asked each of the parties involved in the election a series of questions on investment in science and research and development (R&D). STA has published the responses to seven “priority” areas on its website.

On the question of whether the party would commit to long-term investment in R&D, and to bringing spending up to the OECD average by 2020, Labor said it had increased spending to 93% of the OECD average and would continue to invest in science and R&D.

The Opposition, however, said that at a time when there was a need for “severe budgetary restraint across government”, it would be extremely difficult to make such a commitment. But it said it was committed to promoting and supporting Australian science and research “of high quality and impact”.

Responses to other questions, including regarding the supply and quality of science and mathematics teachers, strengthening Australia’s international science effort, and boosting collaboration between research and industry, are also published on the website.