Universities the winners if Labor assumes government

Australia’s 40 public and three private universities stand to gain millions of dollars in additional government grants if the Labor opposition wins the federal election on 18 May.

Two years ago, under the present conservative government, funding for universities was frozen. This effectively slashed subsequent federal spending on higher education by an estimated AU$2.1 billion (US$1.5 billion), while also capping the number of Australians who could enrol in a university.

First elected in 2013, the conservative coalition government immediately announced it would cut its spending on universities by 20%, increase subsidies to private institutions, and deregulate tuition fees so that universities could set their own charges.

Performance-based funding

But the government’s plans were rejected by the Senate, forcing it to find other ways of saving money, so it announced that ‘performance-based funding’ would be introduced.

This was to ensure “that universities were focussed on providing quality teaching and supporting students to achieve the best possible graduate outcomes”.

“From 2020 universities will be able to access funding for bachelor level places in line with population growth if they meet specified performance requirements,” a government spokesperson said.

But Labor has rejected these decisions and announced that if it wins government at this month’s elections, it will restore uncapped university student places and boost spending on the institutions.

“This will unlock educational opportunities for thousands more Australians,” said Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.

In a reply to the government’s latest budget announcements, Shorten noted that nine out of 10 jobs created in the next four years would require a post-school qualification.

“When we win government, we will uncap university places, opening the doors of higher education to an additional 200,000 Australians,” he said.

Among its other plans, Shorten said Labor would conduct an inquiry into post-secondary education, with one aim being to highlight the importance of vocational education, so that it “sits beside and not beneath higher education”.

Universities welcome inquiry proposal

Welcoming the Labor announcement, Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson said the party’s commitment would create more educational opportunities for all Australians.

“If uncapped places are restored, universities will be able to continue the important equity work that has led to 66% more Australians from the poorest quarter of households enrolling, as well as 50% more students from regional and remote communities and105% more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.”

Universities also applauded Labor’s commitment to rebuilding the vocational education sector following successive funding cuts and policy changes under the conservatives.

“We need both vocational education and universities to be strong to ensure our economy has a smart and skilled workforce into the future,” Jackson said.

But the government is continuing with its efforts to exert more control over universities, announcing that it would introduce its performance-based funding scheme for universities.

A government spokesperson said a panel of experts had been appointed to provide advice on the design of the performance measures and the formula to be introduced from 2020. These included appropriate ways of assessing performance and their weighting, as well as how to address the disparity in attainment rates across Australian universities.

Another key issue was to decide how to create incentives that genuinely encouraged universities to improve their performance, so that “performance-based funding does not become a tick-box exercise or an unattainable goal”.