Salad Days In Higher Education Spending?


"Through successive Budgets, this Government has shown an unwavering commitment to enable more Australians to gain the lifetime benefits of a high quality university education," Senator Evans said. It’s a typical press release statement from the Minister for Education. From within the university sector, the government’s commitment doesn’t quite look to be quite so unwavering.

Two weeks on from Budget night and the federal government is still defending the so-called "austerity" budget. Gillard and Swan needed to make some tough calls but many in the university sector have been left scratching their heads to understand the decisions they made.

No one denies that the Howard years were characterised by chronic underfunding of health, education, and social services generally. Tertiary education suffered particularly as the bulk of its funding comes from federal coffers. Howard’s cuts played an important role in rising staff-student ratios and falling domestic enrolment. As current Minister for Innovation and Research Kim Carr reminds every panel he addresses, the Gillard Government has committed millions more than Howard for tertiary education: "We have boosted annual spending on science, innovation and research to almost $9 billion — a 34 per cent increase on the previous government".

For all the grandstanding, some questions remain unanswered: is this a sufficient additional investment — and is the Government investing in the right things?

Case in point: this year, the Government cut the Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC), annual budget, all $88 million of it. After a huge outcry, the projects were re-allocated to the Department of Education, Employment, and Workplace Relations at a cost of $50 million. Recent investigations show that the shutdown will include up to $9 million in further expenses for items like breaking contracts. The tertiary education sector was stunned at this decision — and the savings it accrued seem to diminish every day.

And as it cut the ALTC, the Government invested $222 million into education for the schools chaplaincy program.

In the lead up to this year’s budget, there was much discussion of the potential cuts to the National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC’s) budget. National campaigns — Discoveries Need Dollars and #ProtectResearch — were launched for the cause. That such significant cuts to federal funding for health and medical research were even canvassed is cause for concern.

So while it’s certainly true that the Rudd and Gillard governments have increased funding over the scraps the Howard government provided, there is substantial work to be done to get the funding of higher education in Australia to a sustainable level.

When Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research conducts discussions with the tertiary sector, they veer away from the topic of base funding. In Australia, base funding of tertiary education in Australia is less than 1 per cent of GDP.  Current funding is not in line with many other countries we are trying to compete with — and that has palpable effects on our students, both undergraduate and postgraduate.

The Lomax-Smith Base Funding Review currently underway is expected to reveal that the amount of money allocated per student place is insufficient. Regardless of the way one rearranges the total amount of funding, the exercise is a bit like shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. Ultimately, the total funding needs to be increased, particularly for students completing Masters degrees by coursework and higher degree research.

This is especially the case for coursework postgraduates who should be exposed to the "Masters experience" with smaller, more detailed classes, and assignments set at an appropriate level. With insufficient funding, many universities not only end up with larger classes, but engage in parallel teaching, where postgraduate and undergraduate students sit in the same lectures and tutorials, because they are unable to afford to run two different sets of similar classes.

In models like these, everyone suffers. Research students don’t fare much better, with funding unable to cover basic minimum resources. Where space is a problem, many of the larger universities engage in "hot-desking", which effectively leaves students with no guaranteed working space. This seating style briefly appeared in the corporate sector and was quickly dismissed as having a negative and disruptive impact on employees. 

The scholarship allocated to some research students is marginally above the Henderson poverty line, meaning students have to engage in part time work on top of their full time studies. Most notably, the scholarship is only for three years, when Australia has a four year PhD: I can’t think of many people who would take on a job and only want to be paid for 75 per cent of it. And while the number of scholarships has doubled under the Gillard Government  ensuring more students can engage with research programmes, the broad problems within the sector — which will require an injection of funds to fix — remain.

Carr is a big fan of promoting industry to take on some of this funding burden: "Even in times of plenty, taxpayers simply cannot shoulder the burden alone. Business must invest in the research that gives them an edge in the global market and universities must be responsive to the needs of the innovation economy".

This approach has its problems. Should industry fund the PhD programs, there is the risk of an overall devaluation of research programs. Humanities students particularly are more likely to be told their research isn’t profitable for a company and shouldn’t be done. We already see industry funding buildings on campuses: the new Sydney University law building is filled with rooms named for donors. If industry becomes a major partner in universities, will non-profitable sections of universities get shut down?

So, yes, the Rudd and Gillard regimes have both injected millions more into education than Howard government did — and we can be grateful for this. But plans for the higher education sector to keep growing mean that more money will be needed to keep pace with more and more enrolments. And right now, as any student or staff member on campus can tell you, there just isn’t enough.


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