Go8 Opening Statement to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee into the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment Bill 2017

24 Jul 2017
This Committee and its deliberations are critically important to us because we, Australia’s research intensive universities, with seven of our members ranked in the world’s top 100, cannot continue to provide our services to students and the nation with the current funding models in place.

Put simply, were it not for international student fee income, Australia would not have the intellectual capacity it needs to weather the huge shifts we are seeing in the global economy.  

The luck will run out for Australia if we do not become one of the most innovative nations in the world - and this will not happen without a world class set of research intensive universities distributed across our large country.

We are here because we need your support and help - as our submission sets out.

After many years of absorbing regular funding cuts – it is our view that we need to draw a line in the sand.

We have reached a tipping point that will affect the quality of the teaching and research we deliver.

It is a tipping point for the economy where we are currently the nation’s third largest export sector...

And most importantly, a tipping point that affects all students at Australian universities, including the 375,000 students at the Go8, many of whom are being asked to pay more for less.

And a tipping point for the many mums and dads who support them through their undergraduate and post graduate study after - in many cases - also having supported students through many years of schooling whilst trying to manage the rising costs of housing.

It is our collective view that this Bill is a piecemeal policy offering that does not offer reform - but instead - entrenches the current distorted university funding model and will cause severe detriment to our students, our research capability and therefore the nation.

And it’s worth pointing out at this juncture our strong belief that you don’t have to have gone to a university to reap the benefits of what our university sector provides each and every day - through our graduates, through our research and through our connections to our communities. Indeed research shows that we all benefit from having a more educated society.

We therefore urge this committee to recommend to the Senate that it reject this Bill without amendment and we do so on the following basis:
  • This is not a coherent package;
  • It is based on a  contradictory set of principles;
  • It represents the largest cuts to university funding since 1996;
  • It will leave students paying more for less;
  • It will not improve outcomes for our students;
  • It will not deliver a sustainable system;
  • It does not deliver positive outcomes for research; and 
  • It imposes a significant regulatory burden on students, government and universities for no clear benefit. 

Our nation’s universities are here for the public good – indeed we are public institutions – or at least we are in spirit if not in name.

The facts are - that in 1987, more than 80% of university funding came from the federal government.

Now, across the country’s eight most research intensive universities, federal support has fallen to an average below 40% (excluding the HELP program).

Students, who in 1987 paid a $250 annual administration charge, today pay for over 80% of their tuition fees in some popular programs.

This Bill represents the most brutal cuts by a federal government in more than 20 years - $2.8 billion of direct commonwealth funding stripped out of the system.

Importantly -  what this all means -  is that in 2017, Australia’s universities have been financially disenfranchised for so long by funding cuts that some  - figuratively speaking – are  increasingly drifting away from their status as public, certainly in a financial context.

That is a serious situation for us, and for Australia.

In 2017 we must rely on our fee-paying international students to fund our domestic students and our research.

It is arguable that the higher education sector in Australia would collapse without our international students and it is -  - in our view – certain - that Australia’s research and innovation engine – the research intensive universities would cease to exist as such.  

The Group of Eight is home to one in three international students who choose to study on-shore in Australia.

In 2016 we educated 53 per cent of Chinese International students studying in Australia.

Without the ability to continue to offer a quality education to those international students they will likely go elsewhere - because they can.

The International student market is a highly competitive marketplace where we are competing for quality international students against the best universities in the US and UK.

And now China’s own universities are striding forward quickly and are sophisticated and of exceptional quality. So much so that they attract their own international students!

At the heart of this matter is the fact that our international students come here for a quality education and are prepared to co-invest in our system, however, they will not come if they are the sole reason for the continued existence of our quality institutions.

Should we lose this flow of students  - the tens of thousands of people who will lose their livelihood in the general economy are entitled to ask why our government put at risk the third largest export earner in Australia. An export earner which has helped weather the downturn in our traditional resources exports.

As Australia’s leading universities, the Group of Eight is adamant we owe all our international students and our domestic students a quality education.

We are just as adamant that we conduct the quality research that Australia and the world expects of us, and which we have the excellence in researchers and the funding to deliver.

That is our dilemma.

The status quo, whilst not optimal is, for the time being, better for our students and our researchers than what is hanging over them with the Budget 2017 legislative package.

Most importantly – it is better for Australia, including the tens of thousands of people who have never set foot on a campus but who are employed because of this amazing $22B export industry.