Last night’s budget is widely perceived as having delivered nothing for higher education. But if DEEWR’s portfolio budget statements are compared to last year’s, we can see that this isn’t quite true.
The relaxation of rules on how many students can be enrolled on full government funding rates is having more of an effect than the government anticipated last year. The extra students will cost the taxpayer $600 million more over the next three years than originally forecast. HELP lending will go up even more, with an extra $650 million in outlays if current predictions are right (this includes people borrowing full fees under FEE-HELP, as well as the HECS-HELP money associated with more Commonwealth-supported students).
Reaction has been neutral to negative because apart from full-fee students facilitated by FEE-HELP this money doesn’t solve the problems universities face of costs increasing more quickly than revenues. The would-be students who have missed out in the past due to quotas on university enrolments have never had much of a political voice, and so can neither praise nor condemn government policy on this matter.
However the lack of movement on funding per student – not even details of the base funding review promised in last year’s budget – again raises questions about the political strategy pursued by the higher education sector.
Their biggest weakness, as I have argued before, is that their enrolment actions undermine their more-funding rhetoric. But nearly as serious is that for domestic students they continue to put all their eggs in the public funding basket. Fee deregulation would have a similar effect to demand-driven funding, in enabling the system to adjust automatically as conditions change, rather than relying on the political lobbying that has failed in all but a handful of budgets since the mid-1970s.
Update 13/5: Julia Gillard’s estimate of additional spending is twice mine; she’s including an additional year in the forward estimates but even so I am not sure how she gets to her number. But there is the first official figure on over-enrolments for this year, just under 10%.