Are we selling our universities short?


There's a well-known tea-towel that has hung in many a kitchen which reads, "It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a cake stall to buy a bomber." This makes sense, while stealing from the higher education budget to better fund our public schools just doesn't add up.

At the most basic, good schools depend on good teachers with good tertiary degrees in education and teaching. Education is a continuum from pre-school, primary and high school, to universities and vocational education. We need all of these levels functioning well and with funding to produce a well-educated society and to boost national productivity.

Robbing from one level of education to boost funding in another is a recipe for failure. In doing this, Labor has adopted the Coalition's neo-liberal dress.

With this latest $2.3 billion raid on our university sector, the government is leaving the least-advantaged students high and dry, as well as undermining national productivity.


Labor had nailed its colours to the mast of increasing participation in our universities. The introduction of demand-driven funding has seen about 150,000 additional student enrolments, boosting students from regional Australia and low-income backgrounds. But funding increases have not kept up with the increased enrolments, and these latest devastating cuts will see those students bear the biggest brunt.

The vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, Glyn Davis, who is also the chair of Universities Australia, estimates that the so-called "efficiency dividend" of 2 per cent in 2014 and 1.25 per cent in 2015 will translate loosely to universities losing about $200 per student per year.

The University of New England estimates it will lose $8.3 million in per-annum funding. Other universities across the nation are in the same boat.

Students from the country and those on low incomes will bear the brunt of the overhaul of cuts to the Student Start-up Scholarships, which convert the scholarships from grants to income-contingent loans. These scholarships, targeted at disadvantaged students, make up $1.2 billion of the funding cut. It was just last year that Labor's former higher education minister Chris Evans was having a go at opposition leader Tony Abbott for attacking this scholarship, pointing out that "in particular [it] is crucial in helping students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to pay for the upfront costs associated with study at university".

Many of the new students targeted by Labor to go to university rely on these scholarships to get off the starting blocks each term. A student worried about how they will pay for their degree may now understandably baulk at taking the plunge.

In delivering these cuts, Tertiary Education Minister Craig Emerson has betrayed the students and the sector he should be defending. He has also turned his back on two government-instigated reviews that recommend a minimum 10 per cent increase in per-student base funding.

In the campaign against these cuts, it is important that the Coalition is not let off the hook. Despite their rhetoric bemoaning the measure, it took only two days for the Coalition to crumble and commit to stand cheek-by-jowl with the government. This is no surprise.

It beggars belief that the old parties who spend so much airtime talking about national productivity could find no problem in cutting funding to our universities. This is despite the fact that Australia's higher education sector already languishes towards the bottom of the list in OECD comparative rankings of per-student funding for public investment in universities. Of the 29 advanced economies, Australia ranks 25th.

Instead of selling our universities short and playing off school students against university students, we could fund Gonski by fixing the mining tax.

Sadly, Labor and the Coalition have judged future university students and their families as a softer target than the powerful mining companies. It's up to us to show them they have misjudged Australia's support for growing world-class universities. Perhaps we should produce a tea-towel that reads, "It's a great day when our schools get all the money they need and mining companies have to hold a cake stall to fund their ad campaigns."


  • This article pretty much says it all.
    I think that the only way that these politicians would 'listen' was if no one turned up to vote. But we all know that the likelihood of that is zero.
    Right now, I don't feel like voting at all this year.
    Neither party is worth the vote or the effort it takes for me to queue up to wait for a voting slip.

    Date and time
    April 22, 2013, 12:37AM
    • Funding for Unis has been increased dramatically under the Labor government All they are being asked to do is still continue to receive increses in funding from the Labor governments plan, but would they please mind just helping the school kid,and indeed unis,s get a better deal(than they have suffered under Howards administrative regime)by simply accepting slightly less of an increase for a short while, you know to be community minded and patriotic--extend some social conscience into the body of community.They will still be getting increases all trhe way anyway.I suppose they arte too afraid that Liberal might get in and slash everything, so they are , quite understandably,keen to get as much benefit as fast as possible first.

      Date and time
      April 22, 2013, 7:51AM
      • You haven't been in a university recently, have you? The repeated story is cutting of department and faculty budgets by cutting staff, putting people on short-term and casual contracts, reducing their consultation time with students, cutting library budgets, cutting research budgets, and so on. Universities are being asked to have more students without the money, staff, or resources to properly educate them. Students suffer, research suffers, and staff morale suffers.

        Date and time
        April 22, 2013, 4:56PM
    • I used to vote Greens with preferences to Labor. Now, thanks to Christine Milne's act of political bastardry in hanging Labor out to dry, I'll be voting Labor and directing my preferences elsewhere. I have great personal respect for Lee Rhiannon, but her party has lost the plot. When the alternative to the current government is so hideously problematic in almost every sense, the Greens should have been focusing on ways to work with Labor, rather than against them. At least Gillard is trying to tackle climate change, public education and social inequality. The proposed reforms may not be perfect but they are a darn sight better than absolutely anyone else has proposed.

      As Kane mentioned in an above post, Labor has dramatically increased university funding - why don't we ever hear about that?

      Milne excoriated Labor and Gillard for failing to take the mining tax far enough, though they did the best they could in the face of a totally obstructive opposition (who STILL deny the need to act on climate change, by the way).

      Greens need to take a long, hard look at themselves before they end up as a no-man's-land party that attracts neither LNP nor Labor voters. You used to provide us with an alternative, now you're just being negative for no reason.

      Red Pony
      Date and time
      April 22, 2013, 9:32AM
      • Interesting. I consider that the alternative government will be an order of magnitude better than the current government in every sense. Judging by the opinion polls, most of the public seem to agree. At least Abbott is trying to tackle the reckless waste and ineptitude of the current govt.

        Date and time
        April 22, 2013, 12:27PM
      • Jerry,

        Opinion polls are about as accurate as a coin toss in predicting election results.

        "Waste and ineptitude" -- which was that again? You mean the fact that we have extremely low debt on an international standard? That our treasurer was recently rated by *independent, international* bodies to be the best in the world? That we have near-record low unemployment? That we weathered through the GFC in better shape than any other OECD country?

        Or, let me guess, you have fallen for the spin from the Abbott crowd about the BER (which over 98% of school were happy with)?

        Seriously, show us some evidence of this waste and ineptitude. I dare ya.

        Red Pony
        Date and time
        April 22, 2013, 3:54PM
      • Further to my last post, Jerry:

        I quote:

        The magazine applauded his "swift response to stimulate the economy'' despite "strong opposition at home'' and said he had "succeeded in getting most of the important decisions right'.

        "These include putting in place an exit strategy for the stimulus and sticking to it, imposing a fiscal discipline that many other finance ministers refusing to adopt,'' said the magazine's citation of Mr Swan.

        "Swan continued to deliver this strong and steady performance despite political difficulties at home, in which his Labor Party only has the smallest possible majority through the support of independent MPs.''

        Red Pony
        Date and time
        April 22, 2013, 3:57PM

      I remember when there were only five universities in Australia.
      Now all the old teachers colleges, CAEs, institutes of tech, dare I say it Tafes, consider themselves universities.
      The funding dollar is spread thinly over a large number of POOR quality universities, and I use the term universities loosely.
      Why...because my little Jonny was never told he was too dumb and should consider a trade in an environment where plumbers earn more than doctors.
      We must return to five excellent universities.

      I know nussink
      Date and time
      April 22, 2013, 9:54AM
      • I agree to an extent. But maybe a bit more than 5.

        Keep Usyd, UNSW, Monash and Melbourne Uni. After that each state can have one capital city uni and one regional uni in a highly populated area such as Newcastle Uni (a uni that stands pretty well on its own).

        Trades now pay very well and often better than most professions. There's no longer any social harm in focusing on trades.

        Some of this equalisation has come about because unis have oversupplied the market. Lawyers are a good example. The number of firms hiring graduates has not increased in line with the number of graduates pouring out from so many unis. Now a typical lawyer's salary is below that of your average tradie. Heck, it's even below that of train drivers.

        Date and time
        April 22, 2013, 1:31PM
      • Perhaps if we had better universities you would have said that we need 'fewer' universities with increased funding.

        Sophia H
        Date and time
        April 22, 2013, 2:44PM

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