Improvements to funding and equity for primary and secondary school education are essential. These should not be achieved by slashing the resources available for a quality university education.
After the Government stripped $1 billion out of universities in the mid-year economic statement, the first major statement of the new Higher Education Minister Craig Emerson was to make a further $2.3 billion cuts to the sector. Around $1.3 billion of this will be borne by students – with the rest to come from an “efficiency dividend” of 2 per cent on payments to universities.
Let us be very clear: this $900 million reduction is not an “efficiency dividend”. The federal government is not our shareholder and our institutions do not have profits to distribute to them or anyone else. This change is a cut to university core funding.
Australia has one of the most efficient university sectors in the world. As a percentage of GDP, our public investment in universities is 25th out of 29 advanced economies. Despite this, in international rankings we are consistently a top five performer.
This success has been achieved through the hard, dedicated work of university staff who have proven they are passionate about contributing to a bright future for Australia. But there is only so much we can do without the funding to back us up.
The cracks are beginning to show — Australia’s universities are being placed under considerable stress. We are being asked to expand at a time when our funding and income is becoming increasingly uncertain. Federal government policies have opened up more university places to students and removed caps on the number of students that can be admitted to courses. While we support more accessible universities the resources to offer students a high quality experience need to be guaranteed.
Worst hit at are university staff and students. University student to staff ratios are now amongst the highest in the industrialised world. Staff are reporting significant negative impacts on teaching and research outputs due to the intensification of workload that has occurred as a result of this.
Previous reductions to university budgets have led to an increase in so-called “flexible” employment practices by university management, causing the numbers of non-permanent or casual staff teaching in universities to balloon. On average, around half of all teaching done in Australian universities is undertaken by casual employees.
Casual staff are committed professionals who endeavour to provide their students with a rewarding educational experience. However, they cannot be expected to provide the same level of support to students as their full-time colleagues when they do not have the time or access to the physical facilities to consult with students or faculty colleagues.
Cutting funding from universities at this stage simply does not make sense. The community, in particular students and their parents, expect that Australian universities will provide high quality education in line with international standards. If the Australian government does not reconsider these changes, it can no longer expect us to provide the world-class level of university research, community engagement and teaching, expected by the Australian public. Research from Universities Australia shows that:
- 88 per cent of parents want their children to go to university,
- 93 per cent consider universities as important in providing the skills and knowledge for tomorrow, and
- 87 per cent support an increase in funding for universities.
Most working families aspire to have their children attain a good quality education at primary, secondary and tertiary level. At the same time, good educational output across the board is essential to maintain economic competitiveness internationally and in our region.
This requires investment at all levels of education. A clumsy attempt to pit one level of education against another is unworthy of the Federal Government. If these cuts are allowed to be instituted they will no doubt be used as a rationale for further mass job cuts and higher impost on university staff and students in the future.
What an irresponsible act for a new higher education minister. In announcing the changes, Craig Emerson said he would leave it up to universities to decide where internal cuts will be made to cope with this slash to funding.
What is clear to staff working in the sector, and to the National Tertiary Education Union, is that any reduction in funding must not be borne by university staff. They have met the brunt of the previous rounds cuts through increased workload, work intensification, increasing insecure employment and higher student-staff ratios. There is no more to give.
As civic institutions, universities are part of our economic and social fabric and are integral to the future prosperity of our country. Our community knows that it is vital that our universities continue to offer high quality education and undertake innovative and groundbreaking research. It is a shame the Government hasn’t realised this.
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