Despite higher education traditionally requiring strong government investment, the sector is not expecting any great windfall in this month's Federal Budget.
Universities have managed quite well in maintaining high income levels despite the two-year pandemic, with many only losing about 10 per cent of their income.
Yahoo Finance spoke to Australian National University Professor of Higher Education Policy Andrew Norton, who believes that, even in an election year, tertiary education will not receive much attention in the Budget.
However, Norton said attention would need to increase in coming years, with more school leavers expected to overwhelm the higher-education system.
“I think the reality is that higher education is never really big in an election," Norton said.
"Labor announced its policy a few months ago and it was mostly pretty small-scale stuff.
“There might be some sort of sweeteners for a particular marginal-seat university, but I’m not really expecting any higher education news out of the Budget.
“The biggest problems I think are coming in a few years’ time. We’ve got the [former treasurer Peter] Costello baby-boom students that are starting to reach the end of their school years.
“They’ll seek, in large numbers, to go to university and at this stage there will not be enough capacity to meet the additional demand.”
Baby bonus to create course shortage
Norton went on to explain that, due to the baby bonus of the Coalition government in the early 2000s encouraging more people to have kids, the Government of today would need to start planning now to make sure the university places they would expect were available.
“At the moment, we’re in a fairly flat demographic period for year 12 students, so there’s not a lot of unmet demand in the system in my view, but in a few years’ time there will be," he said.
“We need a much better analysis of where the students are going to be physically. The reality is that most school leavers do not move out of home to study and they’re going to want to go to universities that are [within] a reasonable drive or public transport commute of where they live.
“We need to look at the funding of those institutions, relative to the kinds of student numbers that they have now, and ensure they’ve actually got the capacity built in. You can’t fix it overnight, they’ll need to do it in the preceding years.”
Equality in HELP system needed
For this year’s Budget, Norton said he believed the policy to create cheaper university degrees for teachers and nurses to address shortages was now obsolete and it was time to bring equality back into the system for those paying more for other courses.
“The job-ready graduates package introduced a whole lot of distortions into the student contribution system that need to be unravelled. But I don’t think the current Government will do that now,” he said.
“People doing arts and business and law have been hit with these $14,500 annual contributions, so they’re looking at $40-50,000 in HELP debt at the end of their courses. While in teaching and nursing it’s been cut back to about $4,000 per year.
“All it means is that some people will spend most of their careers repaying their HELP debt and others will clear their debts pretty quickly, which I don’t think is good social policy. It doesn’t cost the Government a lot of money [to change the policy], it just means different people pay different rates.”
Greens call for more support
Yahoo Finance also spoke to The Greens education spokesperson, senator Mehreen Faruqi, who said the TAFE sector in particular had been neglected throughout the pandemic and needed an urgent boost in this year’s Budget.
“Over the life of this Government, we have seen fee hikes for students, funding cuts for universities and TAFE, and an abject failure to support higher education during the pandemic,” Faruqi said.
“Students have really struggled through several years of remote learning, being isolated from their campuses and each other, and many have now been hit with higher course fees.
“We must get rid of this Government and we will push the next one to make a big injection of funds to support public education, teaching and research in this country and to make university and TAFE fee-free for students.”
International students still missing out
Faruqi also called on the Government to increase support for international students after they were excluded from the Commonwealth’s Disaster Recovery Payment in the wake of the ongoing floods.
“During the pandemic lockdowns, we saw international students neglected, abandoned and mistreated at every turn – excluded from critical schemes like JobSeeker and JobKeeper. Now, they are being locked out of disaster payments," she said.
“The Government has not learned its lesson and continues to treat international students as little more than economic opportunities to be exploited.”
In 2020, there were 882,482 enrolments generated by 686,104 full-fee-paying international students in Australia on a student visa. That represents a 7 per cent decrease in enrolments on 2019 compared with an average annual enrolments growth rate of 7 per cent per year over the preceding five years.
The number of international students in Australia totaled 570,626 for the January-December 2021 period, a change of -17 per cent compared to the same period the previous year.
Yahoo Finance approached Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s office with questions about the Budget’s provisions for students, but a spokesperson replied: “The Government doesn’t comment on Budget speculation.”
A spokesperson for Acting Education Minister Stuart Robert told Yahoo Finance that in 2022, the Australian Government was providing $19.7 billion to the higher education sector and would increase that to $21.5 billion in 2025.