As reported recently, higher education is expected to face cuts in Monday’s MYEFO. My guess – but certainly not my preference – is that the government will use new university funding agreements to freeze the demand driven system, and to reduce postgraduate Commonwealth-supported places.
Under demand driven funding, most public universities are paid a Commonwealth contribution for each domestic bachelor degree student they enrol (section 33-5(5) of the Higher Education Support Act 2003), except in medicine which is ‘designated’ (section 30-12(b)).
However, section 33-5(5) includes a provision for setting a ‘maximum basic grant amount’ for ‘non-designated’ places (ie, all fields except medicine). This power has been used for the University of Melbourne and the University of Western Australia, which traded in undergraduate places for Commonwealth supported postgraduate places. What we now expect is that the maximum basic grant amount will be used for other universities to reduce future spending on student places.
This can be a freeze but not a cut in nominal terms due to section 30-27(3) which says that, where a maximum basic grant amount has not previously been set, it cannot be less than the amount calculated under section 33-5(5) for the previous year, ie 2017 for the 2018 funding agreements. For the University of Melbourne and the University of Western Australia, it cannot be less than the maximum amount set for 2017. The freeze could be maintained by determining that the 2019 maximum basic grant amount was the same as for 2018, which is turn was the same as 2017, and so on.
It is also possible that the maximum basic grant amount will be higher than 2017, but lower than a university would have received after indexation of the Commonwealth contribution rates under division 198 of HESA and payment for any increase in student numbers under section 33-5(5).
In practice, it is likely that most universities would lose the value of Commonwealth contribution indexation and not be paid Commonwealth contributions for any additional students they enrol. Sustained over a number of years, this could do universities significant financial damage, especially if they are already locked into growth (for example, a university that increased its commencing student numbers in 2017 will have to accommodate them while they finish their degrees).
There is no equivalent of section 33-5(5) for student contributions or HECS-HELP. Therefore universities can still receive indexed student contributions for every Commonwealth supported student they enrol.
All postgraduate, associate degree and diploma courses are designated and distributed to universities through funding agreements (section 30-10 of HESA in conjunction with 30-25(3)). These places have to be allocated to funding clusters (section 30-10(2)).
The government was already planning to cut 3,000 postgraduate Commonwealth supported places, so that is likely to go ahead. They will also have to choose which discipline clusters to cut. As with bachelor-degree places, universities could still receive student contributions directly or via HECS-HELP.
Existing postgraduate students who are enrolled on in a Commonwealth supported place are entitled to keep it (section 36-25 of HESA). Effectively, that is an entitlement to a place with a price-controlled student contribution but not necessarily a Commonwealth contribution. Universities would still be allowed to ‘over-enrol’ (ie take more students than their funding agreement states) but would only get the student contributions. For new postgraduate students, universities can offer full-fee places to replace lost Commonwealth supported places.
The government may also cut Commonwealth supported places in associate degree and diploma courses. Universities could still receive student contributions if they ‘over-enrol’ in these courses. However, they are prohibited from offering full-fee places in all undergraduate courses (section 36-30 of HESA).
The funding agreements are not legislative instruments, and therefore are not sent to Parliament and not subject to disallowance by the House of Representatives or the Senate. It is that, rather than any higher education policy rationale, which makes capping likely. It is one of the few options left for a government determined to make Budget savings without a Senate majority.