We should of course be a little sceptical when Julia Gillard talks about cutbacks. But if cuts need to be made, who will take a hit?
Step forward, Australia’s vice-chancellors. Higher education has long been near the top of the list when money needs to be saved. And in recent times, higher education spending has been out of control. As I noted last year, massive over-enrolments have forced multiple large upward revisions of federal spending on higher education. Postponing the decision to ‘fully fund’ these places (unis receive only student contributions if they exceed their funding agreements by more than 10%), promised for 2012, could produce nine figure savings.
If this does happen, it will confirm my view that there have been some reckless decisions to take so many students. And there is little sign in this month’s offers figures that there has been any attempt to bring numbers under control. In NSW and the ACT, where much of the 2010 over-enrolment is concentrated, offers are up 2.6% on last year (acceptances may be higher or lower, so we can’t directly infer commencing student numbers from this figure). In Victoria, offers are up 1.1%.
The 2011 intake will ‘replace’ (in terms of total student load) smaller commencing cohorts from 2008 and preceding years who have now completed, so total over-enrolments are likely to be well-up on 2010.
Unless unis really do have very low marginal costs, cutbacks could mean that the ‘irrational exuberance’ of 2010 and 2011 enrolments leaves some universities with students they cannot afford.