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."