Budget Special: Pyne buys time

13 May 2015

Campus Morning Mail, 13 May 2015

By Stephen Matchett

A budget with an intensely political purpose

Supporters of the status quo in higher education got what they wanted in last night’s budget – no structural change to the student funding system.

But they paid a price for peace with carefully calibrated cuts to infrastructure spending, notably the Sustainable Research Excellence in Universities program (on top of previous reductions), which funds indirect costs of research. Universities are especially annoyed by this because the reduction will be hard to see in the bright light of the promised continuation of the National Collaborative Infrastructure Strategy and the surprise announcement of a new (albeit reduced) Future Fellowship round (below). In effect the government is funding researchers but saving on the equipment they use.

And, as promised, last year’s 20 per cent cut in money per Commonwealth supported student place, which is meant to be made up by universities charging students fees,  is still there, as of,  the now administratively and at present politically impossible, start date of January 2016.

The end result is intense irritation among peak university groups.

“For 12 months, universities and students have been in a holding pattern of policy uncertainty. In the interests of students having the information they need to make one of the most important decisions of their lives, the future of the (deregulation) bill must be addressed as a matter of urgency,” Universities Australia Belinda Robinson said last night.

“This budget takes us nowhere nearer the goal of the reforms that we support,” the Group of Eight’s Vicki Thomson added.

The other lobby groups agreed.

“The budget is … a holding pattern, waiting on the resolution of the reform impasse,” Conor King  from the Innovative Research Universities group said last night.

The Regional Universities Network welcomed NCRIS continuing but pointed out that sustainable funding was stalled in the parliament.

Last night interest groups all had one message, that after 12 tough months the government is piling on the pain.

On top of the SRE slug the Cooperative Research Centres take a second hit after last year (although Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane’s coming statement may address this one way or another). And then there is an ambiguous outcome for campus classrooms. The Office of Learning and Teaching is gone but there is $28m for the Department of Education to spend on its function.

But what is immensely irritating on campus will not generate much attention off and last night Education Minister Chris Pyne focused on school funding, lifting teacher quality, there is $17m to implement the recommendations of Greg Craven‘s report, and the financially insignificant move to collect HECs from people living overseas. All of which will be popular in the broader community.

A start (admittedly just $10m) to the Medical Research Future Fund from Health Minister Sussan Ley will also be received as a sign the government is committed to research (nothing impresses voters more than scientists working on cancer cures).

The government also pointed to its VET reforms, now being rolled out by Training Minister Simon Birmingham, replete with references to billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs for young people.

The result is a budget that takes post school education, and research, off the top of the Question Time fight card – and that is the minister’s purpose.

There is no doubt that Mr Pyne still believes deeply in deregulation and now he has bought another year to negotiate it through the Senate. It leaves universities still standing, but worse off, especially in terms of research infrastructure.

And they are sick of it.

“We are on our feet but the funding noose is still around our neck – universities simply cannot go on like this,” a veteran policy analyst said last night.

That Mr Pyne agrees the funding model must change has been clear for 12 months. What we learned last night is just how determined he still is to do the changing.

Source: Campus Morning Mail