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No way to bring about a clever country

ANALYSIS

Bankrolling schools to the detriment of universities? Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Bankrolling schools to the detriment of universities? Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Photo: Bloomberg

The essence of the meaning of ''rob Peter to pay Paul'', according to The Phrase Finder, is the pointlessness of taking from one only to give to another who was similar.

This seems to encapsulate the federal government's shock decision to raid $2.3 billion from university tills to pay for its ''once in a lifetime'' opportunity to fix school education funding. While the additional money needed to fund the ambitious education reforms had to come from somewhere, it is counter-intuitive to claw back the money from universities.

At best it muddies Labor's message. 

At best it muddies Labor's message. The Prime Minister has called her passion for education a ''crusade'' and wants Australia to be in the top five performing school systems in the world by 2025.

There will be negative implications for some universities: Universities Australia chairman Glyn Davis.

There will be negative implications for some universities: Universities Australia chairman Glyn Davis. Photo: Jason South

The lion's share - 83 per cent - of the new $14.5 billion in education funding over six years is targeted at state schools, which educate the majority of disadvantaged students.

According to the Gonski review, 56 per cent of children from low socio-economic backgrounds completed year 12 in 2009, compared with 75 per cent of children from high socio-economic backgrounds.

The funding reforms would hopefully lead to an increase in year 12 completion and raising the achievement levels of students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds and encourage these young people to go on to university.

Yet the Prime Minister is bankrolling her ''crusade'' with $900 million ''efficiency dividends'' to these very universities, which could lead to job cuts, less research funding, bigger classes and fewer university places. Students on start-up scholarships will be required to pay back a payment that helps with textbooks and equipment when they reach an income threshold. This will save the government $1.2 billion.

Universities Australia chairman Glyn Davis says the efficiency dividend, while limited to two years, will place severe strain on universities that have been encouraged to expand enrolments.

He says the magnitude of the cuts will challenge the ability of universities to continue to meet the high standards expected of them.

The loss of income support for students would be compounded by the inevitable withdrawing of existing academic and support services provided by universities.

Professor Richard Teese, from the University of Melbourne, believes the cuts to universities are particularly cynical because Labor can bank on the fact there will be minimum electoral backlash. He says university funding has traditionally been something few voters have cared about. ''They can raid university tills with electoral impunity and get marks for funding schools, which are seen as far more important,'' he says.

But if we really want to be the clever country, surely it is crazy to rob universities to pay schools?

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