What can the government do about student associations and free speech?

The Australian this morning reports that ‘Education Minister Alan Tudge is considering cutting off funding to student organisations that ¬≠attempt to stop the airing of views they oppose on campus.’ The trigger is an issue with the ANU student association, and whether an anti-abortion group and the ADF should be able to set up stalls at the association’s market day.

As is usual in these cases, the facts are not entirely clear. The student newspaper Woroni quotes the student association’s social officer as saying the groups were excluded. But the association told The Australian that the groups did not apply and therefore no application from them has been rejected.

Either way, ‘Mr Tudge told The Australian he was considering ways to block student unions that impede free speech from taking compulsory student fees which fund their services on campus, and tying them to a model code of free speech that now applies only to university administrators and staff.’

How can student unions be regulated?

As the minister’s statement acknowledges, if a student union is a separate legal entity to the university it is not automatically covered by the academic freedom and freedom of speech definitions added to the Higher Education Support Act 2003 earlier this year. The government may try to extend freedom of speech provisions to student unions.

The current freedom of speech law is based on applying conditions to grants rather than direct regulation. As student unions don’t receive grants this mechanism cannot be used for them.

While the government does not directly fund student associations, this year the Commonwealth has lent students about $130 million through the SA-HELP scheme to pay their amenities fees.

There is no current power to attach additional conditions to SA-HELP loans, but this could be considered.

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How much the government paid for Centre Alliance’s Senate vote, and other updates from the funding agreements

This post updates one I wrote in April, including new information from revised university funding agreements posted on DESE’s website.

South Australian university Senate special deals

The updated funding agreements let us see how much the government paid to get Centre Alliance Senator Stirling Griff to vote for Job-ready Graduates, which is $68.6 million for South Australian universities over the 2021-2023 funding agreement period. Unlike much of the other additional money in the funding agreements, these increases are ongoing rather than temporary.

I am not sure what criteria were used in dividing the money between the South Australian universities. In 2021 Adelaide gets 1.9 per cent more than it presumably would have otherwise, Flinders 2.7 per cent, and the University of South Australia 3.1 per cent.

More short course places allocated

In my earlier post the allocated short courses fell short of the announced budget value of $252 million. Now they slightly exceed it at $258.7 million, divided between 256 undergraduate certificates valued at $102.9 million and 491 graduate certificates worth $155.8 million. My updated spreadsheet of short courses is here.

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Would universities have received JobKeeper under more favourable rules?

In 2020 the Australian government JobKeeper policy provided eligible employers and employees with a wage subsidy, which was designed to sustain employment during a COVID-related shock to the Australian economy.

Public universities were eligible for JobKeeper, but its regulations were changed several times to reduce the chance that they would qualify. I assessed the merits of the government’s university JobKeeper decisions in a previous post. No university received JobKeeper directly, although some benefited from it via their subsidiaries.

With most university annual reports now published I can partially investigate the effects of the government’s university JobKeeper decisions. As at 6 July 2021 I have 2020 financial results for 32 public universities. I am missing the South Australian universities, the University of Canberra, the University of Tasmania, and Charles Sturt University.

Time period of revenue loss

For all organisations JobKeeper eligibility involved comparing revenue in 2020 with the same period in 2019. Most organisations could choose a month or quarter, but for universities it was changed to the six month period from 1 January 2020. In my previous post, I rated this as the least defensible government university JobKeeper decision.

Early on, before the six month period was introduced, some universities thought that they could qualify (eg Sydney and La Trobe in April).

The original one month comparison option, starting with a calendar month that ends after 30 March 2020, seemed to create opportunities for some universities. Government payments arrive in fortnightly instalments, while fees are paid around due dates. In particular months international student fees received for the next semester may be a large percentage of all university income. A big drop in fee revenue in one of those months might have triggered the revenue decline threshold that made an employer eligible for JobKeeper assistance (the relevant level is discussed below).

At least at Sydney, most first semester 2020 student fee due dates were prior to 30 March (I could not find La Trobe’s dates). And Sydney is one of the ‘China universities’ affected by a border closure to China from 1 February 2020. The ‘India universities’ are unlikely to have had a March trigger month, as Indian students mostly arrived before the international borders closed completely to routine travel on 20 March 2020.

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How defensible were the government’s JobKeeper decisions for public universities?

The Australian Government’s JobKeeper program was intended as a temporary scheme to keep people in jobs during COVID lockdowns and business restrictions. It was originally scheduled to run until late September 2020. With some more limited extensions it finished at the end of March 2021. The government made several decisions that reduced the chance that a public university would qualify for JobKeeper support. This post evaluates those decisions from a public policy perspective. A subsequent post assesses how the various decisions affected public university JobKeeper eligibility.

In the rush to implement JobKeeper, the public university aspects were not well implemented or explained. University hopes were raised only to be dashed, feeding a sense of persecution as well as cutting off potential funding. I will argue, however, that the final policy position reached by the government, except for the time period for comparing 2019 and 2020 cash flows, was not wrong in principle.

More importantly, JobKeeper was never the right response to the higher education sector’s COVID-related problems. It was a short-term program aimed at helping employers maintain staff through domestic lockdowns and restrictions on activity. Regulations affecting the day-to-day activities of people in Australia were, and remain, very disruptive to universities but are not leading to a major loss of income. The financial problem is an international border closure that will last for more than two years. This will cause significant continuing revenue losses from international students into the mid-2020s.

The eventually announced extra government money for research and temporary new student places were more like what is needed. My critique of the government’s higher education response to COVID is that these policies were only announced late in 2020, and largely terminate before borders are predicted to re-open. Additional assistance for 2022 should be arranged.

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