Universities Australia is the peak body for the university sector, representing Australia’s 39 comprehensive universities. Universities Australia’s members educate more than 1.4 million students and conduct research and development on behalf of the nation. Now, more than ever, Australia’s universities are central to our welfare and prosperity, as they help guide our response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Universities are vital national infrastructure. They play a fundamental role in the economic and social wellbeing of the nation, through the production of skilled graduates who provide critical skills to the labour market and wider community; through research that brings new knowledge to drive productivity; and through their community outreach, leadership and service that makes Australia a better place to live.
Australia’s universities are stewards of a wealth of expertise and knowledge that can be deployed on behalf of the nation. University research produces knowledge and innovation that will address the pandemic and its impact. Australia will need more skilled graduates to drive economic recovery.
Universities Australia acknowledges the Government’s decision to alter the legislation before it was introduced to Parliament in order to protect funding for student places, through a floor on the ‘maximum basic grant amount’ that the Education Minister can set. We also acknowledge the inclusion of the Transition Fund in the Bill.
The package – and the legislation to enact it – is complicated and the changes proposed are profound. The sector has now had the opportunity to scrutinise the legislation in more detail and to discuss its many implications. Universities Australia has some further proposals to make for amendments to enshrine key aspects of the package in legislation and to improve particular elements of the Bill.
Universities Australia welcomes the Government’s commitment through the Job-ready Graduates (JRG) package to providing additional university places to meet increasing demand for higher education. Demographic growth in the youth population, plus the effects of the first recession Australia has experienced in nearly 30 years, mean that many more people – both school leavers and others – will want to study in coming years. To equip Australians with the skills needed to drive recovery and to thrive in the economy of the future, more university places are urgently needed.
We note, however, that Government is not making available any additional resourcing to support these additional places. Indeed, total funding for teaching will fall – by 5.8 per cent per place on average. To give more Australians the opportunity to get a degree, universities will have to teach more students for – at best – the same amount of funding. Further, this obligation to do more with less will arise in a context of significant – in some cases severe – reductions in universities’ revenues.
Reductions in funding for student places under JRG are hardwired into legislation. The money diverted by these measures has a number of intended uses, including to fund additional places; indexation of funding; two new funds to support industry engagement and equity and access; and a ‘Transition Fund’ to help universities disadvantaged by the package in the first three years of implementation.
Universities Australia notes that while funding reductions are all to be legislated, repurposing of the money is not. While we welcome the policy intent of the package, we remain concerned that failure to protect key elements in legislation puts the policy objectives at risk, avoids Parliamentary oversight of higher education funding and will leave higher education vulnerable to ad hoc budget cuts in the medium term.
Universities Australia seeks further assurance on the future funding of key elements of the JRG package, through their inclusion in the legislation or at least through timely publication of the relevant changes to delegated legislation such as the Commonwealth Grant Scheme Guidelines and the Other Grants Guidelines.