Just before Christmas, Education Minister Simon Birmingham had a Bill Murray moment. With the stroke of a pen, he inflicted a recurring Groundhog Day on all Australian unis and their students. In the wake of his $2.2 billion cuts, funding will no longer rise in line with inflation.
So now, each year, you will wake up to find it is 2017. Funding for your local public university will be the same as it was last year – no matter where you live, no matter how great the local need for higher education, no matter if the cost of keeping the lights and power on keeps going up.
It doesn’t matter if you live in a town recovering from the collapse of manufacturing industry, in Western Sydney – one of the fastest-growing regions in Australia – or in Wagga Wagga or Wollongong, Newcastle or Narrabri, or anywhere in between.
Right when our nation’s universities are about to make offers for study this year, the minister hauled up the drawbridge. University funding is now frozen in time.
So what does that actually mean?
It’s pretty simple.
If you were a uni that was planning to grow – with plans already in place to offer more student places to meet growing demand in your local area – you now won’t have the funding to do so. If you were a uni planning to educate exactly the same number of students as you did last year, you’ll get a cut. And only if you educate fewer students would you get the same amount per student as you did in 2017 in real terms.
So, to be clear, being “frozen in time” actually means falling behind. Just like if your salary was frozen in 2017 but your bills kept rising each year. The reality is a freeze is a cut.
So how will this affect students, many who are waiting anxiously for a university offer right now?
In upshot, it will mean fewer places. Because the government has cut funding to universities by $2.2 billion, some students who would otherwise have been offered a place at uni will miss out.
The brutal reality of the government’s cuts is that some students who are just as deserving as mates who started university 12 months ago with all the same aptitude and attributes – may now not get a place in 2018. But it is impossible to say exactly what the immediate impact of the cuts will be. Unis will all deal with the funding cuts in different ways.
Some will dig into critical maintenance funds to offer students places instead. Some will defer or cancel building plans for small campuses in remote and regional areas.
Some will have no flexibility, and will be unable to do anything other than reduce the number of places they can offer.
Clearly none of this is sustainable, for students or universities.
The Senate rejected cuts to unis last year, saying clearly that cuts to education would be the wrong decision for Australia’s future. But instead of accepting that decision with sportsmanlike good grace, the government ignored the umpire’s call. It imposed backdoor cuts in a way that doesn’t need to go to Parliament.
The laws the minister is relying on to make these cuts were drafted as an “emergency brake” in case Australia’s uncapped system of university places ran out of control.
But the system hasn’t run out of control. It has done exactly what it was intended to do.
Student numbers have grown to take advantage of all the talent we have and we have boosted our skills base.
The “demand-driven” approach was supported by both sides of politics until this set of changes. It intentionally increased university places for Australians who hadn’t had access to higher education before: people from backgrounds of serious disadvantage, people who were the first in their family to go to university, people from regional areas. But the growth has now levelled out, and today about 40 per cent of Australians in their mid-20s to mid-30s have a degree.
Upskilling the population was the aim and it has worked, Australia is now up around the same rates of university-qualified citizens as many of our economic competitors.
But we are still behind many others, including Ireland, the UK, Japan and South Korea, as well as New Zealand and Lithuania.
And while, nationally, 40 per cent of young people have a degree, the education gap between city dwellers and those living in the regions remains.
Northern Sydney might have more than 60 per cent of its young people with a university qualification, but that drops to 22 per cent in Sydney’s outer west and to 14 per cent in the Hunter Valley.
In boom areas such as Western Sydney, a lack of skilled knowledge workers in the years ahead will mean missed opportunities for Australians to fill the jobs that will be in greater demand.
One thing is now sure, the government’s university cuts mean there will be fewer student places, and less opportunity for Australians.
Those who suffer most will be those who can least afford it mature-age students who want to retrain, country kids who want to study agriculture to revive the family farm, and Australians who want to become a nurse to fill looming shortages.
That’s not making the most of all our talent, and that’s not giving all Australians a fair go.
Acting Chief Executive Universities Australia, Ms Catriona Jackson
As published in The Daily Telegraph on 5 January 2018.