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In the Media: Minister Simon Birmingham faces university revolt on funding

The Australian, 6 June 2017

By Julie Hare

Education Minister Simon Birmingham is facing a backlash from vice-chancellors, with 17 of the country’s 39 university leaders condemning his higher education reforms as unfair, punitive and ill-advised.

The attack on the higher education reform bill has emerged on two fronts, with elite institutions and those with regional and suburban campuses voicing their concerns.

Vice-chancellors are furious that they face a 2.5 per cent ­efficiency dividend amounting to $2.8 billion. They say that combined with student fee hikes and more stringent loan repayment measures, the reforms will have a devastating impact.

The Group of Eight says it wants the reform package dumped. “The fact is the status quo is better than what’s on offer for our students and our universities,” said Vicki Thomson, chief executive of the Group of Eight.

She said the Go8 opposed the bill in full and would call on the Senate to do the same on the basis that the separate measures were contradictory and that the bill “represents the largest cuts to university funding since 1996”.

Speaking on behalf of the second alliance, Barney Glover from Western Sydney Univer­sity, said there was scope for negotiation, but the bulk of the funding cuts would have to be moderated.

“We represent over 25 per cent of students in the sector, or 280,000,’’ he said. “We are not a group of universities with significant surpluses. We do not have large endowments and we cater significantly to a group of students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds.”

In announcing the reforms, Senator Birmingham justified the funding cuts by pointing to large university surpluses — which Treasurer Scott Morrison later described as “profits” — ­despite the government’s own calculations showing nine universities were in financial distress in 2015. Senator Birmingham said funding for the sector had grown at twice the rate of the economy since 2009 but taxpayers expected funding to be affordable and sustainable.

“Australian universities have seen record growth in revenue over recent years and have little to fear from slightly lower growth for a couple of years as we seek to better share the cost of a degree between taxpayers, students and universities, while still delivering 23 per cent growth in funding across teaching and ­research,” he said.

Ms Thomson said the eight universities in her group would lose $343 million over four years.

Professor Glover said the government was proposing the cuts despite evidence showing huge volatility in the system, with some universities struggling. He pointed to a NSW Auditor-General’s report, due to be published today, which highlights a “continuing downtrend in commonwealth government grants” as a cause of financial uncertainty among the state’s 10 universities.

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