Uni VCs should take some blame for consequences of latest cuts

Well so much for the Universities Australia campaign for increased public funding of higher education, with another half-page ad in today’s Weekend Australian. The government has announced a new wave of higher education spending cuts.

As usual with these weekend announcements there is not much detail available, and not all the numbers make sense to me on current information. For universities, the main impact will come from ‘efficiency dividends’ of 2% in 2014 and 1.25% in 2015. This will be the first cut to nominal per undergraduate student funding since the Dawkins reforms 20 years ago. [Mookster makes the point below that after indexation there will not be a year-on-year reduction, though I am anticipating that there will be a reduction to Commonwealth contribution amounts in the Act.]

Reducing public funding to higher education is not in itself problematic. But arbitrary changes to the prices universities receive for reasons which have nothing to do with higher education (funding Gonski is the claimed reason in this case) are not easily justifiable. In a more market-based system, we could see whether students would rather put up with cuts or pay more to maintain current services.

This outcomes highlights the political failure of the Universities Australia process that led to their current policy document. By maintaining an exclusive focus on public funding rather than building a political case for more fee deregulation they were always taking a big risk. The idea that a $5 million university advertising campaign could alter the political calculation that there are more votes in schools and health was always pretty fanciful. And so it has again proved to be, even sooner than I thought.

The reality here is that there are vice-chancellors who would rather undermine the services they can provide than concede an ideological point about student charges. They should take some of the blame for the problems these cuts will cause.