The Australian government is now “considering all options” to cut its higher education budget, despite the Senate having voted against the AUD2.8 billion cut proposed last month.
Education minister, Simon Birmingham, did not deny the rumours that the government are looking into non-legislative measures i.e. university spending that can be slashed without parliamentary approval, The Guardian reported.
This means programs like the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program, or Heppp, which helps students from low-income families access university, could be affected in the name of reaching the AUD2 billion in cuts the federal government needs to make to meet budget savings.
“Labor, the Greens and Xenophon blocked AUD2.8bn of budget savings in favour of yet more spending,” Birmingham said. “Their unacceptable approach would further grow the taxpayer-funded student debt burden and deliver even faster revenue increases for universities.
“It beggars belief that Labor, the Greens and Xenophon parties are unwilling to make even modest reductions in the rate of spending growth, which under our reforms would still increase university funding by 23 percent over the next four years.
“With taxpayer funding to universities having grown at essentially twice the rate of the economy since 2009, it’s fair and reasonable to continue to expect a modest contribution to budget repair.”
Canberra’s plan to make AUD2.8 billion in cuts to the sector was stalled by the Australian Senate through opposition from Labor and the Greens in late October. The Senate’s refusal to to pass all of the government bill and called for the higher education sector to be reviewed was then hailed by the universities as a “victory for common sense”, but this latest statement by Senator Birmingham shows the current hostility between Canberra and universities are not yet over.
According to The Australian Financial Review, putting Heppp on the chopping block as well as two high-end research funding programs alone would save AUD2.04 billion alone.
Also under consideration is capping student numbers at the current levels this year – universities that want to continue expanding would have to make savings from their own budgets.
Tim Pitman, a higher education researcher from Curtin University, told The Guardian, expanding student numbers is “the most surefire way of increasing representation of disadvantaged students”.
Cutting Heppp would be “damaging”, but capping student numbers is the “elephant in the room”.
“If the demand-driven system was to be paused the sector would, if not contract, it would stop growing and the first students to take a hit would be those disadvantaged students,” he said.
Universities Australia chief executive, Belinda Robinson, said this threat of non-legislative changes by the government would be “in direct defiance of the will of the Australian people and the parliament”.
“Both the public and lawmakers would quite rightly take a dim view of any bid to go around the legislative process for investment in higher education,” she said. “There was a clear message from the Senate on proposed cuts to universities and that was ‘don’t do it’.”