Bendigo Advertiser letters to the editor

Opinion divided on university funding

In the run up to Christmas, the government gave regional Victorians an unexpected unwanted ‘gift’: their share of a $2 billion cut to higher education funding. It’s a cut that will impact on the future workforce in our regions - the nurses, teachers, accountants, engineers, social workers and health and science professionals who all gain their qualifications locally and go on to contribute socially and economically to our communities. The latest cuts are based on capital city reasoning.  The government has looked at metropolitan lecture halls and decided they are saturated.  However, regional higher education still needs to grow; regional participation in higher education is between a half and a third of that in the big cities.  Good regional development policy says that regional campuses and universities need to grow because their communities need the skills.  Instead of investing in regional campuses – where teaching is more expensive to deliver, communities are being given a cut.  This is a bad decision with negative consequences for regional Australia. We know that over 70 per cent of graduates from our regional campuses will stay and work in regional Victoria – and this will be similar at other regional universities. We also know that our regional graduates have a profound impact on the regional economies, pumping in almost $100 million a year to the Victorian regional and rural economy. The government has slipped in these cuts, hoping no one will notice. We have noticed and we vehemently oppose a policy that will strike at the heart of our ethos of inclusion and hit our regional communities hardest.

Professor Richard Speed, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Regional), La Trobe University

FOR all the emotional language about university funding changes the Turnbull government has announced, it’s important to inject some facts. Per student funding from the Federal government last year was at a record $11,637. That’s well above levels in previous years when all our universities were running surpluses. What’s more, at the same time per student funding grew by 15 per cent, costs for universities to deliver courses only jumped 9.5 per cent. Independent analysis from Deloitte highlights universities divert 15 per cent of the funding taxpayers give them for teaching to other endeavours, like administration and marketing. That’s more than doubled since 2010. Reports show that in the last seven years Australia’s universities splashed $1.7 billion on marketing and advertising. How much of that was from taxpayers? Federal funding has grown and student numbers have rapidly increased as the ‘demand driven system’ of uncapped student places was introduced. The growth in funding beyond costs should have delivered efficiencies. The government’s plan to freeze just one stream of university funding for two years still means universities can enrol more students by making use of that 15 per cent teaching funding they appear to have been diverting. There is no reason that universities could not tap into that 15 per cent of funding and grow enrolments in courses they see as having strong student demand or employment outcomes. From 2020, we’ll grow funding at the rate of population increases and tie it to performance metrics to ensure our universities are focused on tackling issues that have emerged such as declining completion rates and employment outcomes. Universities should be asking themselves what their spending priorities are if not to use the record funding we’ve been providing to best support their students.

Simon Birmingham, Education/Training minister