Opinion article

Budget 2016: uncertainty is education policy greatest enemy

Following the 2016 Federal Budget, Deakin Vice Chancellor Professor Jane den Hollander discusses equity and higher education funding.

There is furious agreement in almost all quarters that it’s education and research that will drive the innovation and change the nation needs.

But the much needed higher education reforms to support the change agenda are yet again on hold while yet again we have another review. Another review. 

And while it’s true the 2016 Federal Budget gives us some additional clarity, the focus is unequivocally on the pain – not the gain.  

Higher fees, a deregulated process for popular courses and a lower income threshold for paying back student debt are also all alive in the Government’s Options paper released on May 3, Budget day.

In a blow to fairness in education, AUD$152.2 million over four years, or 22 per cent, has been cut from the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP).  

HEPPP matters because it says something about us all.

Improving equity in education is not only fair, but essential if we are to build the diverse skilled workforce Australia will need to survive and thrive in a digitally enabled and hyper connected knowledge economy.  

Cutting funding and allowing universities to raise fees is not higher education reform. 

Reducing programs to redress inequity in education is not higher education reform.  And while there has been a reprieve on cuts to research, it’s hardly the basis for creating an innovation nation.

All around us other nations are investing.

Canada for example has made what appears to be a move to invest in infrastructure and innovation funding, allocating CAD$2 billion over three years for a new Post-Secondary Institutions Strategic Investment Fund. 

Discovery research was also prioritised, with CAD$9 million for Canada’s research granting councils and an additional CAD$800 million over four years to support the government’s innovation agenda.  

Like Canada, the Australian 2016 Federal Budget emphasises the importance of innovation but puts the onus on industry and business while discussion in Canada focuses on investing in developing university labs, research bodies and university-based innovation clusters.

Someone suggested to me this week that the Canadians might not be able to afford this largesse.  The Canadians seem to be believe it’s a bet worth taking. 

Perhaps it’s time we took a bet on our higher education sector. 

So far Australian universities have delivered – that is what the data and the rankings say, every year.

Uncertainty is our greatest enemy, especially at a time when policy settings on greater industry engagement and on long term strategic planning about research investment demand more coherence in overarching higher education policy.

About the authors

Jane den Hollander

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Professor Jane den Hollander has been Vice-Chancellor and President of Deakin University since July, 2010.  At Deakin, Professor den Hollander introduced LIVE the future, an aspiration for Deakin to drive the digital frontier in higher education, harnessing the power, opportunity and reach of new and emerging technologies in all that it does.

Professor den Hollander holds a BSc (Honours) First Class in Zoology and a Master of Science degree from Wits University, Johannesburg.  Her PhD is from the University of Wales, Cardiff.

Prior to taking up her appointment as Vice-Chancellor of Deakin University,
Professor den Hollander was Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) at Curtin University in Western Australia.

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