New PM urged to act on higher education funding

Universities have called on Scott Morrison, Australia’s latest prime minister, to overturn an ‘effective cap’ on student numbers imposed by his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull last December and reverse the government’s ‘AU$2.1 billion [US$1.5 billion] university funding cuts’.

The universities were responding to the latest political upheaval in the ruling Liberal Party. An attempt by a conservative faction inside the party to oust Turnbull in favour of former immigration minister Peter Dutton, led instead to the installation of the more middle-ground Morrison.

This resulted in the nation having appointed its 13th prime minister and its 26th education minister in the past 50 years.

Previous education minister Simon Birmingham barely had time to assume charge of Australia’s complex web of universities and state-controlled schools and further education colleges before the election was held and he was shunted off to the trade department.

The new education minister is Dan Tehan, a former social services minister, who has an arts degree from the University of Melbourne and masters degrees in international relations and foreign affairs and trade from the University of Kent in the United Kingdom and Monash University in Melbourne.

Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson was repeating herself when she said she looked forward to working constructively with the new leadership of the country.

Jackson said the change of prime minister was an opportunity to reconsider decisions made by the former government, headed by the now deposed prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

“We urge new Prime Minister Scott Morrison to overturn the economy-damaging cuts to universities and end the university funding freeze,” Jackson said.

“Universities are the engine room of national growth and prosperity – so it makes no sense to cut the source of our future economic growth.

“If we want to ensure Australia has a smart and skilled workforce, and if we are going to ensure talented, capable Australians can go to university, then these cuts must be reversed.”

Jackson said modelling by Cadence Economics, a small consulting firm specialising in economic analysis, showed the economy faced a AU$12 billion (US$8.8 billion) hit because of the government’s cuts to higher education.

The so-called ‘cuts’ refer to a two-year freeze imposed last December by the former Turnbull government on any further increase in higher education spending above 2017 levels.

Universities Australia estimated at the time that 10,000 student places would not be funded in 2018 because of the budget ‘cuts’ and universities would have to find ‘band-aid’ budgetary solutions to cover the missing funds.

With no indexation to cover rising costs, the freeze could amount to a 1.5% fall in funding in real terms in 2018.

“Less university funding means fewer skilled graduates in the workforce [and] that’s a problem for labour productivity and ultimately, the government’s own budget bottom line,” Jackson said.

“Universities help to bring in AU$31 billion a year by educating international students who support Australian jobs and wages. These cuts also risk the quality of our income-generating international education sector – Australia’s third-largest export sector.”

Australian higher education, however, can expect more upheavals within the next 12 months: an election must be held sometime in 2019, which the Labor Party seems certain to win.

Given Labor’s internal political stability over recent years, universities will be assured of more certainty than they have experienced over the past decade.

High cost of living deters foreign students

International students are enticed by Australia’s welcoming environment, attractive lifestyle and high levels of safety when selecting a university but are most worried about its high costs of living, employment opportunities and whether they will perform well academically.

This is according to an ‘International Student Survey’, released by QS Enrolment Solutions, a company involved with higher education research.

The survey covered the perceptions of prospective international students prior to studying in Australia and then how they felt once they had enrolled and arrived in the country.

Although 90% of the students said they felt safe in Australia, they did not feel financially confident in managing the costs of living and studying there.

The top three reasons for ultimately not choosing an Australian university were the high course fees, cheaper cost of living elsewhere, and receiving a better offer from a university outside Australia.

“This suggests that prospective students are already aware of the challenges faced by international students in Australia and are making decisions based on this information,” says a report of the survey results.

Andy Nicol, the firm’s managing director, said the results revealed an opportunity for universities to improve transition, prevention and intervention strategies to provide more one-to-one support for international students between the time they accept their offers to study and into their first year of studies.

“For international students, being able to work while studying is a vital part of the experience, particularly as many rely on this income to pay their course fees and to cover the cost of living,” Nicol said.

“While most universities do offer support around employment and accommodation, the high cost of living in major cities such as Sydney and Melbourne isn’t something they have control over.

“Our advice is for universities to focus on what they can control and to develop support programmes and strategies to link students to the information that they need to find legitimate and fair part-time employment while studying,” he said.

Nicol said three in every four international students saw Australia as a friendly place. This fact provided the foundation for universities to directly influence the student experience.

“In addition to assistance around employment and academic support, there is an opportunity for universities to play a bigger role in facilitating local connections between international students and the communities that they live in,” he said.

“Helping international students to create and maintain connections with other students and the wider community will continue to pay dividends for universities while ensuring students feel supported and assured that their needs are being addressed.”

International students who considered Australia and then chose to study elsewhere cited cost of course fees and cost of living as their main factors. Prospective students who were still considering Australia were most likely to be held up by financial reasons, waiting for a scholarship or saving more money, the survey found.

New Zealand was rated as most welcoming to international students while that country and Britain scored higher than Australia on most key factors related to international student experience at university.