What Will Higher Ed Look Like Under Pyne?


The National Tertiary Education Union’s election advertisements claim that university class sizes have almost doubled in a generation.

This is not just a slogan. It is based upon published data. Since 1990 the student-staff ratio, which is used to measure the average class size, has increased from less than 13 to over 22 in 2012.

This reflects my own anecdotal experience. Since I started teaching in a university 20 years ago my tutorial class sizes have doubled and face to face class time with students halved. This is a consequence of declining public investment. Coupled with the likelihood that half the time students are relying upon academics employed casually by the hour, and who do not have access to university resources like their colleagues in more secure positions, this must be having an adverse impact upon student learning.

This is embarrassing to both Labor and the Liberal National Coalition as public funding of higher education has not matched the policy promises and commitments made by either party when in government.

Labor came to government in 2007 with grand plans for higher education, recognising the critical role of universities and graduates in their vision for a prosperous, inclusive and civilised Australia. The opening up of university places, the goal of increasing the numbers and diversity of graduates along with other commitments to expand education and research in particular disciplines and in regional Australia were widely supported.

While these initiatives increased the overall higher education commitment, the funding per student did not increase by even the initial 10 per cent considered essential by the Government’s own Bradley Review. Funding had run down during the previous Howard Coalition government. Labor's further review into base funding agreed that significant increases were immediately needed.

Since 2011, the Government has treated universities and students with disdain, cutting back on the promised funding over and over again. The $2.3 billion cuts announced in April 2013 were the last straw bringing the cuts to over $4 billion.

Let’s look at the Coalition’s previous record. Last time the Coalition was in government, the cuts to higher education started as soon as they could get their hands on the budget. In their 1996 Higher Education Budget Statement, the Howard government announced:

  • cuts to university operating grants of 1 per cent in 1997, 3 per cent in 1998 and 1 per cent in 1999;
  • significant increases in HECS and introduction of three separate HECS bands;
  • lower repayment thresholds for HECS;
  • removal of the prohibition on tuition fees for Australian undergraduate students; and
  • abolition of the Discretionary Funding Programme which was then worth over $100m.

At the time the then minister said that these were not cuts, but just a "nick" to university funding. The "nicks" kept coming.

The Howard government also introduced Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU), which undermined the viability of student organisations and resulted in a significant reduction in student support services and advocacy. Student life on campus remains poor and this has adverse consequences for student attrition and mental health.

The Coalition’s anti-union stance in higher education was not limited to student organisations. The introduction of the Higher Education Workplace Relations Requirements (HEWRRs) in the last term of the Howard government required universities to implement aspects of the Coalition's industrial relations agenda, including offering staff individual contracts, in order to qualify for funding.

So what is the Coalition saying about higher education now? We have heard very little from Tony Abbott and his colleagues on higher education in this campaign or beforehand – except that they said they would support Labor’s latest $2.3 billion cut. They have also voted in favour of the previous Labor cuts.

This does not augur well, especially when read alongside the blithe pronouncements in the Liberal National Coalition policy "Strengthening higher education".

The promise to continue "the current arrangements of university funding" merely suggest maintaining the structure of direct funding and reliance on the HECS scheme. The direct contribution is already below 50 per cent. Will the Coalition wind this back further? On their previous track record will they increase HECS? Australian students are already paying high fees on a worldwide comparison and the HECS debt is expected to exceed $50 billion by 2016.

The Coalition claims to "review and restructure government research funding to make sure each dollar is spent as effectively as possible." What does this mean? Are we to see a repeat of a Minister for Education vetoing the decisions of the Australian Research Council’s independent assessors, if research doesn’t fit with their ideological biases?

The promise to "work with the sector to reduce the burden of red tape, regulation and reporting, freeing up the sector to concentrate on delivering results and services" sounds rather good to a sector overwhelmed by complicated and contradictory compliance demands. However, the recent experience of universities and students with the Cameron Tory government in the UK should silence much enthusiasm for going down this path. In the UK, "reducing the burden of red tape" has been used to justify wholesale cuts to universities, schools, health and welfare in the name of reducing unnecessary government expenditure and encouraging the development of "big society" – meaning small government.

This destruction of publicly funded services is already happening here in the Coalition-controlled states using a rhetoric of supporting front line services, but actually destroying the infrastructure and cutting jobs by the thousands. In the UK unemployment and poverty have increased rapidly, and many students can no longer afford to go to university as fees have risen and grants disappeared. The reality is that under Tony Abbott, we are more likely to end up with more surveillance and reporting demands, but fewer funds.

Tuition fees are only part of the cost of studying and student income support remains totally inadequate despite some increases under Labor. The maximum Youth Allowance, Austudy or Abstudy payment is almost $90 per fortnight less than Newstart – which is already woeful. Recent research found that on average students work 15 hours per week to meet their living costs. This is a significant interruption to a student’s capacity to study, with the bulk reporting they must miss classes due to work commitments. The Coalition apparently has no interest in these issues, and they support Labor’s abolition of the Student Start-up Scholarships for particularly disadvantaged students.

The Coalition claims they will "work with the sector to grow higher education as an export industry and to support international students studying in Australia." Education spokesperson Christopher Pyne revealed what this actually means when he announced last week that an Abbott government would increase access to post graduation working visas for international students to encourage more international students to come to Australia – to help fund our universities. Last time the Coalition was in government many universities became reliant on international student fee income to plug the public funding gap.

Is Pyne is proposing that international students subsidise domestic students? Or is his plan to also make domestic students pay more?

What is all too clear is that there is no commitment to increasing student funding or support under an Abbott government.

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