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Australia: a budgetary mixed bag for higher education

Australia's higher education sector has hailed parts of the 2022 federal budget, but concerns have been raised around skills shortages and the funding gaps in research, science and technology.
April 6 2022
5 Min Read

Australia’s higher education sector has hailed parts of the 2022 federal budget, but concerns have also been raised regarding the lack of foresight on addressing skills shortages and the funding gaps in research and science and technology.

“It’s good to see the budget invest in drivers of growth, balancing the need to grow the economy with fiscal discipline,” said Catriona Jackson, chief executive of Universities Australia.

“The university sector is pivotal to Australia’s productivity and central to a modern, future-proof economy. Before the pandemic, universities contributed $41 billion to the economy – one of the largest of any single sector – and supported more than 250,000 jobs,” said Jackson.

“Universities help meet the increasing demand for highly skilled people and conduct the research that underpins Australia’s prosperity, competitiveness and security,” she said.

“It’s fundamental that budget measures supercharge productivity, equip Australians with skills for their future and build the ideas driving new industries in an advanced economy.”

The government’s impetus to foster research commercialisation, with an allocation of $988.2 million over five years from 2021-22, will deliver “significant bang for buck”, as every investment in university research gave back many times more to the economy, Universities Australia suggested.

Jackson also hailed the further investment of $203.6m over six years, towards supporting universities’ efforts in stopping and preventing sexual assault and sexual harassment. A recent survey found “distressing” levels of student sexual assault and harassment in the country.

Independent Higher Education Australia welcomed the budget’s focus on apprenticeships and training needs in aged care and digital industries, as well as measures towards easing cost-of-living and tax reliefs for low income earners – something that many students in need may benefit from. It also lauded the announcement on tax rebates for up-skilling of workers on approved training programs.

IHEA called for “competitive neutrality in the tertiary education sector and student loan equity for all students” as policy measures in the coming years. It also proposed the abolition of the 20% student loan tax, reduced tuition fee pressures through a return to partial regulatory cost recovery, and access to funded places in national priority fields.

“We warmly welcome the focus on regional Australia”

One of the major winners in this year’s budget are higher education institutions in regional Australia. Speaking to The PIE, Alec Webb, executive director Regional Universities Network, welcomed the budget’s attention to institutions in regional parts of the country.

“The Regional Universities Network was pleased with the 2022-23 federal budget, and we warmly welcome the focus on regional Australia,” he said.

The network was pleased to see the “inclusion of a dedicated $142.7m regional university infrastructure program which is a start in addressing the infrastructure needs of regional universities and the regional communities”.

“It is in the DNA of regional universities to collaborate with our industry and community partners, so allocation of $118.9m for regional trailblazer universities will further the opportunities for regional universities to demonstrate our collaborative capabilities in confronting and solving the issues impacting regional Australia,” Webb added.

However, there have also been a few reservations about this year’s budget.

Gwilym Croucher, senior lecturer in Higher Education Policy and Management at the University of Melbourne told The PIE, that according to his analysis, there were not many significant announcements in this year’s budget.

“The government only announced some modest proposals, such as the financial support for 80 new medical training places, as well as previously signalled additional support for commercialisation of research. Expenditure for key programs, such as the Commonwealth Grant Scheme, remains essentially flat,” he said.

“While the budget contained few surprises for universities, it was another missed opportunity to address the messy situation created by the introduction in 2020 of the Job-ready Graduates package of policies, creating administrative headaches and at times having unintended consequences for students.

“There remain a number of anomalies in the funding for domestic student education that will soon need to be addressed, no matter who wins the forthcoming federal election,” Croucher stressed.

Vicki Thomson, chief executive, The Group of Eight, highlighted the need for Australia to build a “sovereign capability” in key skill shortage areas as well as across research and innovation.

“Change is critical and required at speed. It is our graduates and our research and innovation which will, for example, ensure the Hells Gate dam is delivered for Queensland, or that AUKUS becomes a reality,” she said.

“The Go8 is core to Australian capacity and sovereign capability now and into the future because the services they provide underpin the professional workforce and knowledge needs of a prosperous 21st century economy. There is no point announcing key infrastructure and defence projects without adequate consideration being given to who and what mix of skills is required so they can be delivered.

“We will not be building new opportunities and productivity without world class research and innovation,” Thomson noted.

Hugh Bradlow, president of Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering posited that the budget lacked a long-term strategy for safeguarding the country’s economy, society, and environment for the future.

By 2025, we need 40,000 more engineers. This is an immediate need that is not being met”

“We welcome funding for green energy infrastructure and expanding the STEM workforce. However, this budget does not represent a comprehensive and evidence-based investment to decarbonise, or develop the essential foundational skills required for the aspirational technology-forward economy the government has envisaged,” he said.

“By 2023, digital technologies are estimated to contribute $65bn to our economy and we will need an additional 100,000 digitally skilled workers by 2024. By 2025, we need 40,000 more engineers. This is an immediate need that is not being met by support for teachers, students, and the higher education sector,” Bradley said.

“We need a higher education funding strategy that includes additional research funding… a strategy to address the proliferation of insecure employment and a unified plan to address sexual harassment at universities,” posited Alison Barnes, National President of the National Tertiary Education Union.

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