Australia: HE funding freeze will spark competition says uni network


Sources : The Pie News

The Australian Government’s domestic funding freeze decision could significantly disadvantage regional universities and increase competition for international students, according to the Regional Universities Network. However, education minister Simon Birmingham has hit back, saying the blame lays with universities’ spending choices, not the freeze.

Speaking with The PIE News, RUN chair Greg Hill, said the freeze, which will see the 2018 Commonwealth Grant Scheme remain at 2017 levels, would mean Australian universities enrolled fewer domestic students and encourage them to make up costs by attracting more international students.

“The biggest impact to us from the government’s budget cut is that they’ve turned off the tap for domestic students,” he said,

“So the big metropolitan [universities] will simply open up the tap and recruit international much more aggressively than they have been,” he continued, adding that regional areas already were less favoured by international students and would struggle to compete on such a level.

“If the big universities take in a larger number of international students, we won’t get the number we want.”

Compounding the issue, Hill, who is also the vice-chancellor and president of the University of the Sunshine Coast, said regional universities were also more heavily reliant on the CGS than their metropolitan counterparts.

“We rely on the Commonwealth Grant Scheme for over 40% of our operating budget. If you go to one of the big metro unis, who have bulked up on, for example, international students, they’ll be reliant on the Commonwealth for less than 20% of their income.”

A hit to revenue would, in turn, dismantle significant advances in living and education standards for regional Australia, the peak body believes.

According to Universities Australia, the funding freeze will see 10,000 fewer funded places by not accounting for an indexed 1.5% increase in operational costs, compounded further by its announcement after the majority of domestic places had been offered.

UA chief executive Belinda Robinson, however, was circumspect on whether it would mean universities would rely on international students to make up losses.

“I think it’s probably a big jump to say they will be more dependent on international students income because they will most be looking to reduce costs,” she said.

“What we’ll find is universities will do everything they can to ensure that all those who are eligible will be provided with a place, which means that they will have to find the funding for those places from other revenue sources.”

While she believes there will not be increased competition, Robinson added some universities were beginning to reconsider whether delivering new programs was still viable, an outcome that had potential consequences for international students.

“If they are the sorts of courses that international students would be interested in, and they do decide not to proceed with those courses, then international students won’t have the ability to participate in them,” she told The PIE.

According to education minister Simon Birmingham, however, UA and RUN’s concerns were unfounded.

“Per-student funding from federal taxpayers is at record levels in real terms, well above levels in previous years when all universities were running surpluses,” he said, adding that independent analysis from Deloitte had found universities diverted 15% of funding for teaching to endeavours such as marketing and administration.

“Are universities really saying that they can’t find a meagre 1.5% of efficiencies across their $17 billion budgets? If so, then they should be embarrassed for putting administrative and marketing budgets before their students.”

Birmingham added that prior to the implementation of the demand driven system, universities had enrolled more students than the number for which they received funding, “but still saw millions of dollars flow into their coffers… I expect we’ll see the same enrollment behaviour.”

Hill argued, however, that there were outcomes of the funding freeze the government hadn’t foreseen.

“We’re bringing these to the attention of Minsiter Birmingham’s office. They’re happy to listen to us… but listening’s one thing and hearing’s another.

“It remains to be seen if there is any changes.”

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