Education off the election agenda in a budget which wasn’t as tough as expected

Plus Flinders sheds stuff and you shouldn’t fly an A380 to the shops

A win for Birmingham

Last night’s politically careful budget defused higher education as an election issue, at least this year. It also gives the sector a chance to deal with generation-old problems in the way undergraduate courses and professional masters are funded and it sets the government up to sell a hike in HECS. They don’t call him Simon “softly softly” Birmingham for nothing.

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Government accepts deregulation defeat 

The government has “listened to community concerns” and has abandoned university full fee deregulation in a budget designed to defuse higher education as an election issue this year. The cut to the Commonwealth Grant Scheme, already on the books but not levied, is also withdrawn (but not dropped) for 12 months “to give universities certainty for the year” at a cost of $500m. Abandoning deregulation will cost the budget a further $84m and the $1.2bn planned cut to legislated programmes is also gone.

Instead of cuts, last night Education Minister Simon Birmingham released a comprehensive options paper. Any plan adopted from it will begin in January 2018.

While widely anticipated cuts to support for learning and teaching and equity research will proceed these measures are not as severe as expected. The Office of Learning and Teaching will close but funding will go to the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (an extra $10m) and the Quality Indicators for Leaning and Teaching student information website ($8.1m). The Higher Education Partnerships and Participation Programme loses around a third of its previous funding being cut by $40m a year over the forward estimates.  The international education strategy announced on the weekend will receive $12m over four years.

Funding for research remains as previously announced in the well-received innovation plans, with a modest increase in the out years to help universities adjust to changes to block grant funding and $200m for Antarctic science. While the Australian Research Council takes a small cut over $5.3m over the next four years, as Future Fellowships wind up, the National Health and Medical Research Council is not hit.

As with university funding and student fees, funding for vocational education is in a holding pattern, waiting on an outcome from the discussion paper released by training minister Scott Ryan last Friday.

This budget will not end university complaints of systemic underfunding but the cuts are off the table, if only for now. And Australian families who heard warnings of $100k degrees will be relieved that an open market in all university fees is off the agenda for years to come.

The discussion paper (below) reflects Minister Birmingham’s pragmatic approach. He has long argued that the only reform that will work is one that passes the Senate. This budget indicates that the government is keen to neutralise university fees as an election issue but still does not expect to control the upper house in the next parliament. By putting issues on the table that university leaders have long demanded be addressed the minister is signalling that he is prepared for the long policy slog needed to set up the sector for a generation.

The universities would have preferred he just write them a cheque. That was never going to happen but no cuts now and the promise of a reformed funding base is a lot better than many people expected they would be reading about this morning. While the Opposition and university and student unions will argue the government still wants increased courses costs and price competition between universities down the track this will be a much harder sell than the prospect of “$100k degrees” under the original Christopher Pyne plan.

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Addressing unfinished business

Senator Birmingham’s discussion paper includes fundamental issues lost in the fog of battle over fee deregulation. There are ideas here, such as “flagship courses” for universities, not seen since the Lomax-Smith Base Funding Review. Most important the minister wants to address funding for discipline clusters and student band funding rates, established decades back, on the basis of reasoning no-one remembers and which do not reflect actual delivery costs.

The government also puts ideas up for discussion that were expected to be imposed in the budget; a 20 per cent cut in what Canberra pays towards courses cuts, presumably offset by a matching student hike in student fees plus a “small increase in the maximum capped student contribution that institutions may charge.” Unspecified changes to the HELP repayment threshold and rates are also on the agenda.

The paper also signals the need for a policy on publicly funded professional masters degrees, funding for which is now allocated on the basis of ad hoc arrangements and political fixes.

There are many more issues and ideas in the paper and the expert group Senator Birmingham will appoint to work on it will have its work to cut out dealing with them in a year. But dealing with them is long overdue.

Not so desperate times

“Are you a La Trobe student? You could win $50 just by enrolling in semester two subjects,” the university tweeted yesterday. Things aren’t as crook as they sound – the incentive only encourages students to enrol early.

Could be worse

Expert comment on the budget last night was subdued, even though it was a lot less bad  than many (CMM included) expected. Universities Australia deplored the cut to the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Programme and the absence of a replacement for the Office of Learning and Teaching but UA did recognise the opportunities in the government’s new inquiry. “The sector needs this process to resolve the long-running policy tug-of-war, with budget constraints pulling in one direction and the need for high-quality, affordable university education system pulling in the other,” UA chief Belinda Robinson said. Conor King from the Innovative Research Universities group saw it as good for the government but only a start on policy change. The budget “provides a basis for a returned Coalition government and one that it ought to be able to implement but there is much more to do on how the student charge will be altered and from that the basis of Commonwealth Grant Scheme payments.” The Regional Universities Network deplored the cut to HEPPP but welcomed an end to deregulation. The Australian Technology Network was also unhappy about HEPPP but “pleased that the merry-go-round of the efficiency dividend will cease, with funding returning to the sector once and for all.”

It was left to the ever-consistent National Tertiary Education Union to give the government a serious serve. “In this budget Prime Minister Turnbull and Education Minister Senator Birmingham had an opportunity to distance themselves from the outrageous twice failed-deregulation policies of their predecessors in the Abbott Government, and prove their talk of innovation and agility was more than just empty rhetoric. Tonight they have done none of that … There is no commitment of this Coalition Government to innovation and excellence in higher education. It is all just platitudes.”

Even without “$100K degrees to denounce” you always know what the comrades think.


Bailing from Flinders

Back in February Flinders University signalled jobs could go in the strategic plan through to 2025. Back then VC Colin Stirling was not specific but he did mention the possibility of voluntary early retirements and said staff had expressed concerns about excessive bureaucracy and hierarchy,” (CMM February 12.) It’s all happening now pretty much as suggested with people who want out are applying to go. The word on campus  is the university seeks to shed 200 or so, mainly professional staff.

The university is offering up to 74 weeks of salary, taxed at the concessional voluntary redundancy rate. The deal is open to all professional staff but specifically excludes recognised high performance teachers and researchers with three publications over three years rated at ERA four or five or who earned $100 000 or more in research income in 2012-14. Applications close today week.

App of the Day

Deakin U is turning its Explore website into an app. The product is for people who have a career in mind but need to know what the job actually involves and what degrees will get them there. “We surveyed school leavers and careers practitioners and found that secondary school students often felt completely overwhelmed with the amount of information provided by universities in everything from course guides to a multitude of websites, yet specific career outcomes were often unclear to them,” says DVC Engagement Gary Smith.

“While it might seem like we are adding another website to the mix of options for students, Explore is the only site of its kind available for students that directly links careers with the courses available to chase their dreams. Funnily enough all the degrees listed are at Deakin.

The big one to come

Education Minister Simon Birmingham celebrated the ninth anniversary of his election to the Senate yesterday by selling a tough budget for some in his portfolio. He must be wondering what will happen on his tenth.

The business of voc ed

The joint L H Martin – Australian Catholic University, “Building Resilient TAFE”  conference in July will probably not appeal to voced vets who think that ending private sector competition will fix everything. Because the emphasis is on commerce, competition and change, with sessions on “building an entrepreneurial commercial culture,” and “strategies for developing sustainable competitive advantage.” This is a conference for TAFE leaders who recognise they are in business. There is also a whole day on neuroscience, leadership and organisational change. Participants will also learn “how to create an environment where greatness can flourish,” as well as you should never use an Airbus A380 to go the shops.

Selling Sydney

The University of Sydney has won a Webby in the 2016 mobile sites and apps category for its flash student virtual tour, HERE. It features nine 360-degree images of the university plus “how hip is Sydney” (as in the city), presumably for the international market.