University freeze set to continue after election upset

Australians have returned Scott Morrison, an evangelical right-wing Christian conservative, to power as the nation’s 30th prime minister, and the freeze on university spending continues.

Against predictions, the 51-year-old former head of Tourism Australia, won the 18 May election convincingly, but the plight of universities did not get a mention among his policies.

The nation’s conservative parties went into the election expecting to lose and presented the barest of policies, almost non-existent, of any government in recent times.

Morrison emerged as Liberal Party leader and prime minister in August last year, after his predecessor, Malcom Turnbull, lost a leadership challenge.

But when he led the Coalition of conservative parties into the election, they had been trailing in the polls for two years, and the prospect of victory seemed remote.

A deeply conservative Christian, Morrison is one of a handful of government MPs who abstained from a historic vote in parliament that passed a same-sex marriage act.

He also actively lobbied against marriage law reform in 2017, but now claims he “supports the law of the country”.

Although a graduate in economic geography from the University of New South Wales, as a politician Morrison has shown little interest in higher education and certainly no interest in boosting spending on the sector.

Unless, that is, it affects his party’s chances of re-election: A week before Australians went to vote, for example, Morrison announced a grant of AU$30 million (US$21 million) to fund a new mining and manufacturing school based at the Central Queensland University in Rockhampton.

Morrison made the announcement with two local conservative MPs whose hold on their Queensland electorates are on knife-edge margins.

He said the new school would support the mining sector and also train people in emerging industries such as those using hydrogen as a fuel.

But a Queensland Greens senator, Larissa Waters, said students at the new school would be “saddled with debt” because of the Morrison government’s cuts to university funding.

“He’s not addressing the costs of students studying and the health of coalminers, or the fact that black lung disease is back,” Waters said.

“Our plan to transition away from dirty coal to clean renewable energy would generate almost 50,000 jobs in Queensland, and Rockhampton would have a good fair share of that.”

Vice-chancellor greetings

Whatever the real feelings of the nation’s vice-chancellors were, they publicly congratulated Morrison on his victory.

Universities Australia’s incoming chair, Professor Deborah Terry, said universities would continue “the very strong and constructive relationship with the government, and especially our portfolio ministers”.

“Education Minister Dan Tehan has a deep passion for educational opportunity for young people from regional Australia in particular. He is overseeing half a dozen reviews into aspects of the higher education system,” Terry said.

“We will work closely with government on these reviews – with a shared goal to ensure policy is informed by evidence, is thoughtful in design, and maximises educational opportunity for all Australians.”

She said Australians “right across the country” needed funding for student places at universities to keep up with the skilled workforce needs of the economy and the rising population.

“We have a consistent long-term view on this. We must ensure young Australians – especially from battling communities – don’t miss out on the chance of a university education,” she said.

“As a West Australian, I know first-hand that, as in Queensland and South Australia, only around 30% of our younger people have a university degree.”

Terry added that the focus must continue to be on opportunities for all Australians. Without those opportunities, the economy would be less competitive and people and communities would miss out, she said.

“Australia also needs to educate the children born in the mid-2000s – with those young Australians getting ready to go to university in the next few years. We need to make sure the sector has flexibility to meet that need.”

She said Australia must continue to invest in home-grown research breakthroughs “to grow and diversify the economy, protect Australian living standards, and develop life-saving medical treatments and advances in technology”.

“Australia must also continue to develop our high-quality international education sector underpinned by strong standards and excellent support for our diverse student body.”

Flight to New Zealand

Meanwhile, New Zealand authorities have reported a surge in Australians considering a move ‘across the ditch’ following the Morrison government’s election victory.

Immigration New Zealand said there was a more than 10-fold increase in Australians logging into its website the day after the election results were known.

At the same time, expressions of interest from alarmed Australians increased by 25 times on the same time the week before.

More than 8,500 people visited the New Zealand Now website and 512 registered interest – the first step in the visa process. This compared with 20 registrations on 12 May, an immigration department spokesman said.