Universities call on politicians to reveal HE policies

With only four days to go before Australians go to the polls to elect a new federal government, none of the main parties have outlined any policy on higher education, and university leaders are becoming increasingly anxious.

The main organisation representing them, Universities Australia, last Monday called on the parties to release their election statements on “positioning universities for the critical task of transforming and diversifying the economy for future growth and prosperity”.

Universities Australia Chief Executive Belinda Robinson said the Labor government had recently announced it would cut funding to higher education by A$3.8 billion (US$3.4 billion) whereas the Opposition leader Tony Abbott had said a Coalition government (of two conservative groups) would not cut education.

It was not clear, however, whether Abbott – who seems certain to become the next prime minister – was referring to the entire education system or just schools. Before the previous election in 2010, the Coalition released its higher education policies on the second last day with its major announcement being a promise to abandon Labor’s plans to attract more poor students to study at university.

“Australia already ranks 25th out of 30 advanced economies for public investment in higher education as a percentage of GDP. We cannot afford to fall further behind,” Robinson said. But she said neither of the major parties had made clear its vision for Australian higher education, including:
  • • Ensuring adequate, predictable and sustainable public investment for teaching and research.
  • • Maintaining the demand-driven system.
  • • Support for a National Research Investment Plan.
  • • Strategies for maintaining and enhancing the international competitiveness of Australia as a destination of choice for international students.
  • • Actions for reducing the dead weight impact of regulatory overkill.
Robinson said Australians wanted to know what role the major parties see universities playing in meeting the skills needs of the future and in underpinning the well-being of the nation.

“Universities Australia encourages both major parties to acknowledge the importance and magnitude of the return to the economy and to the Australian community on investing in higher education.”

The National Tertiary Education Union has called on its members to back the Greens party, which held the balance of power in the senate in the last parliament and has strongly supported increased spending on higher education.

Union President Jeannie Rea joined other higher education groups on Tuesday in calling on the Opposition leader to explain his plans for higher education.

“The real reason for Tony Abbott’s silence on university funding in this election is because he does not want to reveal his real agenda – to increase the cost of going to universities for Australian students and their families,” Rea said.

“In the absence of any definitive policy announcements on funding, the Australian public can only work out the Coalition’s higher education policy from its track record and the few recent statements.

‘If, as the Coalition has said on numerous occasions, our public universities are grossly underfunded but that the government is not in a position to boost its investment, then the only conclusion you can draw is that students will have to pay more under an Abbott government.”

Rea said that voters needed to remember that one of the first policy announcements of the Howard government when elected in 1996 was to slash university operating grants by 5% and double average Higher Education Contribution Scheme – HECS – fees through the introduction of a three-tier HECS.

“While HECS is a deferred payment scheme, the students still have to pay, and current students are already facing an average $30,000 HECS debt for a four-year degree. How much more before students and families give up on university?”

She said Abbott should also clarify whether he intended to reintroduce full fee-paying for Australian undergraduate places. If so, domestic students could be charged in excess of A$100,000 to do, say, a law degree, and the cost would be equivalent to a student taking out a second mortgage on a home.

“The other crucial question is whether the Coalition will rule out linking industrial relations conditions to university funding,” Rea said.