???Labor is positioning to bank some of the savings from the Turnbull government’s $2.2 billion cut to universities, while vowing to always spend more on tertiary education than the Coalition.
Meanwhile, regional universities have backed away from threats – cited by shadow education minister Tanya Plibersek – to cut student places as a result of the government’s two-year funding freeze.
Announced on Monday in a budget update, the freeze will give way to a new “cap” on funding growth from 2020, linked to size of the working-age population, which effectively ends Labor’s demand-driven system.
While no decisions have been taken, Ms Plibersek signalled the opposition may look to undo that cap, stressing Labor was “fully committed to the demand-driven system” and “very proud” of the subsequent rise in university participation.
Universities, particularly those in the regions, were in uproar over the government’s cut this week – although it represents less damage than the cuts originally proposed by the government in the May budget, which have now been dumped.
Asked on Friday whether the opposition would reverse the cuts, Ms Plibersek would only pledge to “fight” them: the funding arrangements cannot be blocked in the Senate as they do not require legislation.
Earlier in the week, she pointed out the next election may not be until later in 2019 – by which time the two-year freeze will have nearly expired. That would still leave time for Labor to implement a new funding formula from 2020.
Labor education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek. Photo: AAP
“We’ll make our full policy offering on unis completely clear well before the election,” Ms Plibersek said on Friday.
It is expected some on Labor’s expenditure review committee will push to bank at least part of the government’s savings. One Labor frontbencher told Fairfax Media it was “not possible” to fully reverse the cuts in the current fiscal environment.
Another suggested there were “a whole lot of other things that need to be looked at”, including commitments to universities in other areas, such as research funding. They also pointed out Labor’s demand-driven system had already increased the university participation rate much more quickly than expected.
Regional universities argue the government’s cuts will hurt their ability to keep lifting participation in areas where fewer ns have degrees, with vice-chancellors telling newspapers they would have “no choice” but to cut student places.
On Wednesday, Ms Plibersek named Central Queensland University, n Catholic University and the University of New England as institutions that “have all said that they will be reducing student numbers” as a result of the funding freeze.
Each of those universities told Fairfax Media they were concerned about the government’s cuts, but none would confirm they will definitely cut places.
“We haven’t announced that,” said CQU vice-chancellor Scott Bowman, although the university would “probably” reduce numbers in some courses, at least “compared to what we thought we were going to take”.
A spokesman for the University of New England said it was “incorrect” to claim the university had said it will cut places, although vice-chancellor Annabelle Duncan has said the freeze “makes it very hard to continue to grow”.
An ACU spokeswoman would not say if the university would cut places but said: “The reality is the Commonwealth government is funding all universities for fewer student places in 2018 than it did this year.”