Coalition ‘considering all options’ to cut university spending, Birmingham says

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Coalition ‘considering all options’ to cut university spending, Birmingham says” was written by Michael McGowan, for theguardian.com on Monday 4th December 2017 10.45 Asia/Kolkata

The education minister, Simon Birmingham, is “considering all options” to trim higher education spending amid reports high-end research funding and programs for disadvantaged students could go if the government is unable to pass the $2.8bn in funding cuts that are stalled in the Senate.

The government ramped up its war of words with the university sector over changes to tertiary funding, with Fairfax Media reporting the government is targeting non-legislative changes to funding, including axing the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program, or Heppp, which helps students from low-income families access university.

More worryingly for universities, the government is reportedly also considering a funding freeze for student enrolments at 2017 levels, which would in effect pause the demand-driven funding system.

Birmingham did not deny the story on Monday, saying the government was “considering our options for higher education policy” in light of the decision by Labor, the Greens and the Xenophon party to block its budget measures.

“Labor, the Greens and Xenophon blocked $2.8bn of budget savings in favour of yet more spending,” he said. “Their unacceptable approach would further grow the taxpayer-funded student debt burden and deliver even faster revenue increases for universities.

“It beggars belief that Labor, the Greens and Xenophon parties are unwilling to make even modest reductions in the rate of spending growth, which under our reforms would still increase university funding by 23% over the next four years.

“With taxpayer funding to universities having grown at essentially twice the rate of the economy since 2009, it’s fair and reasonable to continue to expect a modest contribution to budget repair.”

His comments represent the latest salvo in an increasingly hostile battle over the proposed changes to higher education funding, which are opposed by the university sector.

The government’s higher education bill would impose a two-year 2.5% efficiency dividend on universities, lower the Help debt repayment threshold to $42,000 and increase fees by a cumulative total of 7.5% by 2021. It would also introduce performance contingent funding aimed at increasing graduate outcomes.

But the opposition from tertiary lobby groups including Universities Australia and the Group of Eight has prompted the minister to ramp up his language on the need for funding reform.

In October, he warned that demand-driven funding for the tertiary education system would come under “increasing question and pressure” unless universities focused more on graduate outcomes.

Tim Pitman, a higher education researcher from Curtin University, said that while any cut to the Heppp would be “damaging”, the demand-driven system was the “elephant in the room”.

“Decades of statistics show that the most surefire way of increasing representation of disadvantaged students is to expand the sector,” he said.

He said recent equity statistics show that after a period of the growth in enrolments from students from low socioeconomic background following the introduction of the demand-driven system, the figure was starting to plateau.

That meant any change to the system now could send enrolments into reverse.

“If the demand-driven system was to be paused the sector would, if not contract, it would stop growing and the first students to take a hit would be those disadvantaged students,” he said.

The Universities Australia chief executive, Belinda Robinson, said the threat of non-legislative changes would be “in direct defiance of the will of the Australian people and the parliament”.

“Both the public and lawmakers would quite rightly take a dim view of any bid to go around the legislative process for investment in higher education,” she said. “There was a clear message from the Senate on proposed cuts to universities and that was ‘don’t do it’.”

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