Canberra drops the ball on funding

When students begin first semester next month, many will find themselves in overcrowded classes taught by casual academics. Gone are the days of permanent staff tutoring undergraduates in groups of eight: students are more likely to be in classes of 20 to 30, while lectures can have hundreds.

The federal government had a golden opportunity to increase quality, reduce class sizes and give casual academics more secure employment. But this would have meant adopting the main recommendations of the 2011 Lomax-Smith report on university base-funding.

Instead, the government has decided to reject the report's main recommendations to increase the level of funding per student. The 174-page report is now relegated to the boondocks.

Senator Chris Evans, the Tertiary Education Minister, made the announcement while people were enjoying themselves on the Australia Day holiday last week. It's taken the government more than 12 months to respond to the report.

The Lomax-Smith report did not put a figure on how much additional public funding should go into universities. However, most higher education experts have suggested it should be 10 per cent. That's the figure recommended by the 2008 Bradley review of higher education.

It was Professor Denise Bradley who also recommended a further review of "base-funding" in response to long-standing concerns that current per capita funding does not cover the cost of educating a student.

Universities Australia, the National Tertiary Education Union and the National Union of Students have all condemned the government's inaction. UA said the government had "squandered" an opportunity to do something about base-funding.

There is a strong case for more public funding of universities. Australia's investment is much less than most other OECD countries.

And, under the new demand-driven system, universities are no longer guaranteed funding for a set number of student places. Their revenue now hinges on how many students take up their university offers.

With no changes to base-funding, how will universities make up income?

Now that places are uncapped, they are likely to enrol as many local students as they can to generate income. We've already seen the detrimental impact of the dash-for-cash to enrol as many international students as possible.

Over the years, academics have reported how they have felt the pressure to pass overseas students. Will universities now push local students through their degrees because they don't want to lose the funding the students attract?

One thing is certain: universities will offer an increasing number of popular courses. The Australian Catholic University added law to its offerings this year.

Universities will also fill up degrees with students who have low scores, many of whom would never have gained university entry in the past. This year, the secondary teaching (arts) degree at Deakin University's Melbourne campus has a clearly-in score of 51.55, but last year it was 70.95.

The clearly-in score for nursing at the University of Ballarat this year is 45.05.

Are these scores really high enough for future teachers and nurses?

This is an election year, but the government's rejection of the Lomax-Smith report has shown that higher education won't be on its agenda. But it should be – and the opposition's too.

Last year, Third Degree spoke to Glenn Withers, the former head of Universities Australia and now a professor of public policy at the Australian National University, who said surveys by ANU and UA show there are votes in higher education.

Professor Withers said a third of the people in the 2010 UA study indicated that the higher education policies of the major parties could be a major factor in the way they vote.

Parents interviewed for the study expressed concern about the future education of their children. Even for adult children, parents understood the importance of continuing education.

"They wanted them to have the prospect of a great future through a university study experience," Professor Withers said. "This predisposed them to want the government to invest."

It is short-sighted for the government to ignore higher education when more and more people are going to university. After all, the government hopes that, by 2025, 40 per cent of Australians aged 25 to 34 will have a bachelor's degree or better.

That's a lot of voters with tertiary degrees.

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This story Canberra drops the ball on funding first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.