LA Trobe University fears it will be forced to cut student numbers at its Bendigo campus next year if the federal government does not reverse a funding freeze.
There are also concerns that the freeze will leave the university unable to properly fill its under-construction $50 million Bendigo engineering building with students.
The funding freeze came into effect just before Christmas last year and ended the demand-driven model introduced in 2011 which uncapped university places.
The funding model allowed universities to offer places in response to student demand, rather than have a set number of places for various courses. Universities will now be pegged at 2017 student numbers.
La Trobe University pro vice-chancellor regional Richard Speed said the demand-driven model had allowed the Bendigo campus to grow to meet community need, and had encouraged local students to study engineering and nursing.
“The Bendigo campus has grown since 2011, it’s been able to grow in areas where students wanted to study,” he said.
“Previously, under the old system, you were allocated so many places for nursing, so many places for engineering. The demand-driven system is that if a student wants to study nursing, then they get funded.
“Where people saw career paths, and where people knew there was an opportunity for a job at the end of it, those areas grew. Areas where perhaps where there wasn’t such an obvious outcome, they’ve tended to shrink a bit.”
Professor Speed said the end of the model would hurt economic development in regional areas.
“We focus a lot of our attention in Bendigo around where the community needs skills,” he said.
“It’s quite hard when you start looking at health, engineering, social work, teaching, business to go ‘well we can trade that one off against this one’.
“It may well be that in a years’ time it does actually force us to cut numbers.”
The under-construction building at La Trobe in Bendigo was designed to cater for the growth in numbers in engineering students, but the funding freeze could mean there would be fewer places.
The freeze saves the federal budget $2.2 billion.
On Wednesday, Universities Australia chair Margaret Gardner said the uncapping university places had seen a 48 per cent increase in regional and rural enrolments, and an 89 per cent in Indigenous enrolments.
In the Loddon-Campaspe region, about 24 per cent of people have university degrees compared with over 50 per cent in metropolitan Melbourne.
Labor plans to reverse the cuts if it wins the federal election later this year.
Education minister Simon Birmingham said the university sector has experienced a rapid expansion in wealth since the demand-driven model was introduced.
“The Turnbull 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,” he said.
“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.”
He planned to introduce a performance-based model from 2020.