Australian govt pressures universities to cap student enrolments
Emptier classrooms. Source: Shutterstock

It’s part of the plan to put the country’s higher education sector on a more “sustainable, responsible path”.

The relationship between the government and universities have been hostile ever since Canberra announced its biggest reform package this May which will cut AUD2.8 billion in federal funding from the sector. This was later stalled in the Senate, but last month Education Minister Simon Birmingham had hinted that the government was looking into non-legislative measures to make those cuts without needing parliamentary approval.

That came in the form of a two-year freeze in commonwealth grants funding for teaching and learning, unveiled Monday in the midyear economic and fiscal outlook, according to The GuardianThis means the Australian government will cap the amount it contributes for each student at 2017 levels in the next two years.

Universities will have to fund the extra cost of bringing in in more students than its current rate, putting pressure on them to freeze student enrolments as they will not be getting any direct commonwealth grants if they continue enrolling more. Any increase following the two-year freeze will be tied to improved performance by said university.

This measure will save up to 90 percent of the estimated AUD2.2 billion cut, the rest of which will come from making graduates repay their loans at a lower income threshold and a new lifetime limit for loans, though these will still need legislation, Treasurer Scott Morrison told a press conference on Monday, according to The Guardian.

The Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program, which is key in helping low-income students into university as well as the key in saving sensitive research programmes from being axed.

This new move effectively shifts the cost of expanding the sector from taxpayers to the universities and to students, which the government says will make it more affordable for taxpayers while maintaining maintain access to higher education for a wide group of people

“We’re stopping universities from effectively writing their own cheque,” Birmingham said.

He maintained that the government was not freezing enrolments, arguing they could still do so if they trimmed the 15 percent “headroom” spent on administration and other costs out of Commonwealth grants for teaching and learning, as identified by Deloitte.

“Linking funding growth to performance outcomes will encourage universities to further improve their performance, support student retention, and boost graduate employment outcomes,” Birmingham added.

The industry, however, believes the freeze not only amounts to a “real cut” in funding – due to inflation –  as described by Universities Australia chairwoman, Margaret Gardner but also akin to treating the sector like a “cash cow to be milked for budget cuts” instead of a means to boost youths’ career prospects, the Group of Eight universities chairman Peter Høj said.

Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen goes a step further by accusing Canberra of “mortgaging the future and attacking one of the sources of Australia’s long-term economic prosperity, our higher education sector”.

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