In the 2021 budget speech, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg spoke of a "plan to secure Australia's economic recovery and build for the future". Yet universities have been completely overlooked, despite playing a central role in Australia's post-Covid economic and social recovery. They have been left to fend for themselves or, as the Australian National University vice chancellor and Nobel Laureate Professor Brian Schmidt puts it, "left to bleed".
The 2021 budget provides no new funding for universities, despite the rapidly falling numbers of international students and revenue - funding will actually decrease by 10 per cent over the next three years. It's even worse for TAFE, which will see a 24 per cent funding cut.
This is a far cry from what Mr Frydenberg called for in his 2010 maiden speech, in which he declared that "much of Australia's future depends on opportunities created by research and teaching in our universities". He dedicated a significant proportion of his speech to the importance of education, arguing that we must "do better than funding [universities] at below the OECD average", as "to underfund these institutions is self-defeating because ... [they are] the source of our prosperity in the knowledge economy of the future". While he once aimed to have two Australian universities in the world's top 10 by 2030, the recent cuts made to higher education have resulted in a rankings drop, with only two universities in the top 100. And the sector is now being told to brace for an "ugly" 2022 which, according to ANU higher education expert Professor Andrew Norton, will only see the situation get worse.
This budget is yet another blow from a government with a long history of attacking the higher education sector. After nearly a decade of funding freezes, cuts, and a successfully-beaten deregulation agenda introduced in the notorious 2014 budget, which would have seen $100,000 degrees for some disciplines, 2020 saw two consecutive attacks. First, the Morrison government's announcement of the $130 billion dollar wage subsidy package, JobKeeper, which was revised three times to ensure that public universities remained ineligible. Second, the introduction of the Jobs-Ready Graduate package that used the promise of reduced fees as an incentive for students to enrol in degrees the government considered "more employable", such as STEM, while discouraging those who sought to enrol in "more popular" disciplines, like the humanities and social sciences, by more than doubling the cost of these degrees. Putting aside the fact that humanities graduates are just as employable as STEM graduates, this package was essentially just another funding cut for universities, heaping more debt onto students.
As a result of the pandemic and government measures, 2020 was a financially devastating year for universities, which saw a $1.8 billion revenue hit. Over 17,300 people - 13 per cent of the university workforce - lost their jobs, from esteemed professors with decades of research under their belts and thousands of casuals who contributed the bulk of teaching, to the professional staff who keep the place running behind the scenes. Universities Australia conservatively estimates that the sector will lose another $2 billion in 2021, bringing thousands more job losses. This will inevitably result in a lack of research in vital areas, like medicine, public health, and technology, as well as poorer course quality. As universities run on three- to four-year cycles, not individual years, we will see the devastating effects of these cuts well into the future.
Universities have essentially lost a generation of researchers and lecturers. Aside from headlines that state the number of redundancies at different universities, and the effects of stress and burnout fixed on the faces of colleagues, much of this process has been made invisible. Because of the casualisation of the workforce - two-thirds of pre-Covid staff were on casual contracts - most job losses were not officially recorded. Rather than being forced to resign, casual academics simply did not have their contracts renewed, leaving no paper trail of their absence. If universities could access JobKeeper like most other employers during 2020, we probably would not have had to lose as many people, along with a considerable portion of Australia's "knowledge reservoir".
Young and emerging academics continue to bear the brunt of this. I finished my PhD at the start of 2020, a month before the pandemic was declared, and am considered an "early career academic". Sometimes I feel like a lone survivor of the "lost generation of young academics" as I witnessed the disappearance of the vast majority of my cohort - many of whom are close friends - who were forced out as there simply weren't any jobs. Promising young researchers, some with book deals and others with teaching awards, felt like they had no other choice but to leave the sector, taking with them vast amounts of expertise and experience that cannot be easily replaced.
All students will feel an impact as those that study the humanities will be saddled with as much as double the debt while those in STEM areas will suffer from a lack of funding, with courses having to do more with less.
This is also a gendered issue. The COVID-19 pandemic hit women and young people the hardest, and the same is true for the higher education sector. In fact, research has predicted that women academics, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are most at risk as they occupy the majority of precarious casual and part-time positions. It will also be more difficult for women to compete against their male colleagues for the research funding that remains available as they take on increased teaching and service workloads, as well as the bulk of primary caregiving. Academia will become even less diverse, and this will be reflected in research and teaching.
What impact will this have on our young people? With a stubbornly high youth unemployment rate of 11.8 per cent and little appetite for a gap year, more school-leavers are turning to higher education. Yet they will find that their course options have drastically reduced, class numbers have soared and, despite a consequent decrease in the amount of time that academics can dedicate to their students, a significant proportion of the latter will accumulate a higher HECS debt, which will remain with them for decades. Conversations with students have shown me that large class sizes are one of the biggest sources of dissatisfaction, with many starting to feel like they are falling between the cracks.
Conservative members of the government have often decried universities as elitist enclaves that suppress freedom of speech. Through their latest cuts, the government risks ensuring that this is the case - that higher education, particularly the humanities and social sciences, will only be accessible to those who can afford the outrageously high fees. Young regional Australians were already 40 per cent less likely to attend university before the pandemic and this budget will further deepen this divide. Yet all students will feel an impact as those that study the humanities will be saddled with as much as double the debt while those in STEM areas will suffer from a lack of funding, with courses having to do more with less. Young Australians deserve the right to choose what to do with their futures, rather than be coerced by a government that continues to cut funding to both universities and TAFE.
The latest university funding cuts in the 2021 budget will have an impact on our nation for decades to come. The quality of degrees will be compromised, as hundreds of courses have already been cut and those that remain have less funding but a higher number of students. Due to the lost generation of researchers, we will see a decline in innovation and international prestige, and a sluggish development of new technology, public and commercial. Investing in higher education is not only necessary to Australia's Covid recovery, but is a wise investment with three main returns: it's our fourth biggest export employing 250,000 people; it will educate the next generation of workers, from doctors and epidemiologists to social workers and psychologists; and it is the driving force of research with clear social and economic benefits.
From a Treasurer who once stated in his maiden speech that "education is the first defence of the nation", this budget suggests otherwise. The government needs to increase university funding to better support the sector through this difficult time, or we might not have the resources and expertise needed when the next pandemic strikes.
- Dr Blair Williams is a research fellow and lecturer in Australian politics and gender-specific studies at the Australian National University.
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