Funding cuts before Christmas

The politicians who protected universities last week may not do it again, at least not all of them

Last week Tanya Plibersek and the Nick Xenophon Team’s Rebekha Sharkie made it clear the government’s funding cuts had no hope in the Senate. But this does not mean they will always deliver what all universities want.

For a start, Ms Sharkie has not signed on to demand driven funding. “Look, they should look at the capping system. … We are spilling out thousands and thousands of students in areas where there’s no work, and we need to make sure that we provide the best opportunities for the next generation. I don’t think we’re doing that at the moment,” she said on ABC TV last week. There is also a hint (see below) that Labor is not as rusted on to DDF as it was when Gillard Government minister Chris Evans created the system.

This could be a real problem for higher education groups. While the government and Universities Australia supports demand driven funding some of its influential members suggest scaling it back (and spending the savings on their universities). In the absence of university unity and a solid Senate, capping undergraduate places would be an easier sell for the government. Simon Birmingham, like Christopher Pyne before him is solid in support of DDF but in the absence of other savings the treasurer and finance minister might be less so.

And for months Ms Plibsersek has talked up TAFE, not vocational education, the unionised TAFE systems. Anybody who thinks that Labor will always protect universities while the states run TAFE down should think again. When Craig Emerson needed money to fund Gonski he proposed taking a swag of it from universities – Labor in government could do the same to fund TAFE.

Then there is the coalition, not especially well-disposed to vice chancellors jus now. Last week Minister Birmingham said the government “will consider the options for higher education policy and address the budget implications from the Xenophon party’s decision to oppose $2.8 billion worth of savings in favour of yet more spending.” The immediate context for any consideration is now the mid-year economic and fiscal outlook, due before Christmas. One way or another MYEFO will cover saving money in higher education.


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