Opinion Editorial: Proposed university funding cuts are an outrageous cash grab from young students and graduates

8 Aug 2017
The Advertiser, 7 August 2017

By Vicki Thomson
  While the war of words on university-funding legislation rages in Canberra, it can indeed seem like some far away esoteric fight over a Budget cut.  For South Australia it is anything but.

What happens to the nation’s Universities affects South Australia per capita far more than any other State. The proposed funding cuts to our three universities, ($26 million per year by 2021) are now at the mercy of the Senate crossbench, in particular the Nick Xenophon party, and are the deepest funding cuts proposed for universities in 20 years.  Importantly they come on top of many years of successive university funding cuts.  

At the same time, the 53,000 undergraduate students at our three universities will be charged more to study, and made to pay back their student loans from a much lower income level once they are in the workforce. The unfairness of this is obvious when many of these young people are, at the same time, attempting to enter an increasingly out-of-reach housing market in a fragile State economy.

The harsh facts are that SA is mainly a city State.  Greater Adelaide has a population of 1.3 million which is 78 per cent of  the State’s population  and the city’s three Universities collectively employ more than 10,200 people. Only the State’s public service is larger.

These cuts will mean job losses within the State’s major non-Government employer. A $26m per annum cut will, at the University of Adelaide lead to the potential loss of 152 full time jobs either directly or indirectly employed by the University.

And the impact on Adelaide will be compounded in some of the State’s smaller population centres, where there are either university health centres, campuses or study centres; such as Mount Barker, Victor Harbor, Murray Bridge, Port Pirie, Mt Gambier and Port Augusta.  

Universities have not said enough is enough without good reason. For every budget cut, be it family, business or a not-for-profit university there comes a tipping point. For us that is 2017. Students will be paying more for far less, and we do know that the majority of South Australian students prefer to study in their home State, as my two sons have done. In making this choice, our students deserve to have their three local universities funded adequately and fairly.  

Instead we have deep concern for current and future SA students – their experience at university, and their right to receive ‘bang for their buck’.

This is important, because we operate our SA universities in a nation where Government policy already means some students are charged 80 per cent of the cost of their chosen course. This makes us the sixth most expensive nation for tertiary study in the OECD.

The magnitude of the cuts saw the National Union of Students and the Group of Eight (which represents the University of Adelaide in SA) recently present almost identical evidence condemning the cuts to a recent Senate Committee hearing. This same committee heard very emotive evidence of just how badly students, in what are called ‘enabling’ courses, will be affected by the cuts.

Again, this is worrying for our State. It is unconscionable that these South Australians, so deserving of an opportunity, should now be told their enabling course will be made available only through incurring a $3200 debt.

There is also a vast hidden hit in the legislation against our best and brightest. Our State stands to lose 3500 allocated post graduate places mainly in professional degrees such as teaching, nursing, architecture and psychology.

Changes to how these young graduates can access these essential post graduate courses (which many must complete to practise) means they potentially will be lured to the Eastern States, most likely aggressively poached by Victorian Universities.

It is a disaster for our State’s economy to lose that next generation of professionals. This legislation needs Nick Xenophon and his team to see it for what it actually is – an outrageous cash grab from South Australia’s young students and graduates.