Breaking down the budget

Published: Monday 2nd June 2014

Even if you worked on an oil rig rather than at a university, you can’t have failed to notice that there’s a new budget in town – and it’s got a lot to say about tertiary education providers.

With panicky claims of $250,000 degrees, and the Sydney Morning Herald signalling a ‘new world order’, the current atmosphere is enough to outrage the most pacifist student, and alarm the most composed academic. But rest assured, the 2014-15 Federal Budget is not the end of life as we know it. There are challenges, certainly, but first let’s look at some of the opportunities.

One is the extension of the demand driven system, which ACU has championed for the past six years. Commonwealth Supported Places will now also cover sub-bachelor places offered by a university, such as diplomas and associate degrees. This will be vital in bridging the gap between school, or mature experience and university.

Another is the deregulation of university fees. ACU has lobbied hard for fee flexibility to help drive competition and diversity in the sector, and ensure Australia remains internationally competitive. The University has not yet made a decision on the level of fees it intends to charge. Any decision will be based on a range of factors including the cost of providing the degree, the ability of students to pay for their degree, and the mission of ACU as a Catholic University.

It will remain our number one priority that students, regardless of their wealth, can study with us. It should also be noted that this is not a completely new phenomena. Postgraduate education in Australia is deregulated, and has managed to operate without extreme blowouts. And luckily, the vast majority of universities have neither the inclination nor the brand to extract bowel-clenching premiums.

Now to some of the challenges, and the first is a biggie.

The demand driven system has also been extended to provide tuition subsidies to students studying at registered higher education providers such as TAFEs, colleges and private providers.

These commercial enterprises would love to be funded like universities, but don’t have the research output, the infrastructure overheads, or the expensive academically qualified workforce to justify it. Yet Canberra has decided to give it to them regardless.

If these bodies are funded at anything like the same rate as universities, there will be two disturbing realities. One is that Treasury will pay through the nose for a whole range of goods that simply will not be delivered: research, academic workforce, governance and quality, and the prodigious community contribution of universities.

The second is that as alternative providers use these grossly inflated subsidies to artificially lower their own prices, universities outside the sacred ring of sandstone with its premium charging capacity gradually will be forced to shed all these ‘extras’ in order to compete. And that may be the end of the ‘mighty middle’ of the university sector as we know it – the ATNS, the great outer suburbans and the quality regionals.

Another great challenge was not in the Budget itself, but mooted last week by Christopher Pyne, who said he would allow universities to opt out of research and concentrate on teaching.

Currently all 39 universities in the country must undertake research, and be funded to do so. And while it may be expensive, it has one great advantage. Every Australian student who goes to university will be taught not only by the person who reads the book before they teach, but also by the person who wrote the book. So our universities are uniformly intellectual engine houses as well as intellectual garages, and that is a very significant thing.

If you want to be taught by the very best person in English literature, or chemical engineering, or law, then you want the person who is absolutely at the cutting edge of the discipline, undertaking research. There is nothing more fundamental to the construction of minds and the formation of brilliance than exposure to that kind of intelligence.

The Budget is a long and complex document, and over the next few weeks we will continue to work carefully through the details and formulate our response. I encourage ACU staff to participate in discussion around the Budget and its implications, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Professor Greg Craven