Government announces cuts to university funding

Wednesday, August 14, 1996

uth = By Marina Cameron

In an apparent bid to allow some venting of public anger before budget night, the federal government released details of planned cuts to the higher education sector on August 9.

More than 30,000 had rallied on August 7 in a national day of industrial and street action organised by the National Tertiary Education and Industry Union (NTEU) and student organisations. Although many university administrations seem to have accepted the cuts, calling for details so that they can plan for the new academic year, students and staff have vowed to continue action against education cuts and for a decent wage for staff.

Education minister Senator Amanda Vanstone plans cuts in university operating grants of 5% over four years, saving the government $640 million, and has ruled out any long-term or one-off payment of the long-running pay claim by the NTEU, which would now have to be funded from reduced operating costs. This has already been predicted to result in fewer student places, fewer staff and the closing down of courses, faculties and even universities.

Two-thirds of the $1.8 billion savings projected from an education budget of $5 billion will come from students. For all new students in 1997, HECS will be charged at three different rates. The minimum rate will increase by $800 to $3300; $5500 would be charged for courses where earning potential on graduation is deemed higher.

HECS repayment thresholds have been decreased from $28,495 to $20,701. The National Union of Students estimates that 94% of adults in full-time employment earn over this threshold.

The cuts may well mean a drop in government-funded student places. Meanwhile, universities will be allowed to offer a further 25% of undergraduate places above the quota of government-funded places as full fee-paying for those who missed out because of low scores. In reality this means that more and more people will miss out on government/HECS-funded places, while an increasing percentage can buy their way in.

As a token "commitment" to maintaining access to education, 4000 HECS-exempt scholarship places will be provided. Other conciliatory measures include an increase to research funding of $130 million and $72 million to programs aimed at Aboriginal people. Most of the increase in research funding will go on infrastructure, leaving research still highly reliant on private funding and targeted to benefit business. The money promised to Aboriginal programs is a drop on what Labor promised in 1995.

Abolishing Austudy outright seems to have been too unpopular. However, a major investigation will be undertaken to avoid "rorting" of the system and to tighten eligibility.

Opposition leader Kim Beazley stated that the ALP would take a "hard-nosed" attitude to opposing the cuts, especially the changes in HECS, despite the fact that HECS and other moves towards user-pays education were introduced under Labor. The Democrats and Greens also said that they would block some aspects of the education cuts in the Senate.

Resistance national coordinator Natasha Simons said, "We need to call for all education cuts to be opposed in the Senate. It isnt good enough to make minor changes to this policy. Education funding should in fact be increased. Resistance will be pushing for more action on the ground before and after the budget to build on two successful national days of action and stir up public sentiment, which is clearly against education cuts."