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Australia: focus on Universities Accord after budget goes quiet on HE

Australia’s higher education sector is looking to the upcoming Universities Accord and the government’s planned migration strategy to fully understand its strategy on international education following a budget that focused heavily on cost-of-living relief and fiscal repair.

Australia's planned migration strategy is expected to have a big impact on the country's international education sector. Photo: pexels

Currently, research spending is at 1.8% of GDP, according to the group of research-intensive universities

Delivering the budget speech on May 9, treasurer of Australia Jim Chalmers failed to mention schools or universities.

But the budget pointed to the Accord, with an interim report expected by June 2023 and the final report to be delivered by December 2023, that will be an “extensive review” providing recommendations and performance targets for higher education to improve the quality, accessibility, affordability and sustainability.

New announcements included in the budget was the allocation of $31.6 million over two years for “improved training arrangements for international medical students working rural and remote location”.

The headline news was the $127.3m to fund an extra 4,000 students STEM and management degrees across the next four years.

Additionally, it mentioned that international students working in the aged care sector will be exempt from the capped fortnightly work hour limit until 31 December 2023 – a policy that had already been announced.

It also reiterated measures to boost skilled migration via the Mutual Recognition of Qualifications deal with India and allocating some 70% of 2023/24 permanent Migration Program places to skilled migrants.

The budget also noted the additional two years of post-study work rights to Temporary Graduate visa holders with select degrees the government announced in February and also highlighted the increased the Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold to $70,000 to “ensure skilled migration settings are better targeted”.

Chief executive of the Group of Eight said that the focus now is on the Universities Accord and future budgets to “deliver on reform that will address the current distorted research funding model & lift [Australia’s] R&D expenditure to the OECD average of 2.7 %”.

Currently, research spending is at 1.8% of GDP, according to the group of research-intensive universities.

While the Go8 “very much welcomes” the new 4,000 additional STEM, it noted concern that “the vast research capability which is equally as critical to AUKUS Pillar 2 was not considered a priority worth inclusion”.

In 2021, Thomson noted that the “distorted” HE funding model in Australia – one that relies overwhelmingly on international students and not enough on public funding – was not sustainable.

While Go8 noted that the latest budget had needed careful balance given the present cost of living and health pressures, it will continue to work with government to ensure Australia’s required sovereign research capability “can be realised and on time”.

“Ensuring Australian students retain the ability to attend a world class university gets a big tick, but there are definitely two aspects to our future defence capability, with research hand in hand with that highly skilled workforce with world-class university training,” she said.

“The budget strikes a balance between cost-of-living relief and fiscal repair,” Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson added.

“We have called on government to ensure university students are included in any cost-of-living support packages and are pleased they have taken this step,” she said, pointing to the increased Youth Allowance, Austudy, ABSTUDY and other income support payments for struggling students.

Universities Australia also highlighted the “vital” role universities play as economic drivers, through the provision of skilled workers and new ideas, research and development.

While the new university places and additional clinical placements are a good start, greater support for universities would make the task of building a better economic future for all Australians easier, the peak body noted.

“We need more skilled workers and more research and development, not less”

“We are a good return on investment, and we drive the productivity the economy so desperately needs,” Jackson said.

“We need more skilled workers and more research and development, not less, but we can’t do it without more investment from government.

While the body acknowledged that “not everything can be funded and tough decisions must be made”, it emphasised that universities “make the nation stronger and more prosperous”.

“We are working with government through the Universities Accord to get the policy and funding settings right for universities and the communities we serve and hope this paves the way for changes in the next federal budget,” Jackson concluded.

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