Letter from Australia: Low budget expectations not dashed

To say that expectations for higher education in Tuesday’s federal budget were lower than a snake’s belly would not be an exaggeration.

Rest assured, expectations were not dashed.

As veteran journalist Barrie Cassidy noted, there’s never been a budget so close to the launch of an election campaign before. “That invites an extra layer of cynicism,” he said.

Roll out the barrel

Indeed, an Alex Ellinghausen photo of Prime Minister doing the post-budget sell out the front of Parliament House summed it up. In the background, is a cyclist who’s bike is adorned with a big pink pork barrel.

The budget contained cuts to the Australian Research Council and the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, as well as previously announced cuts to Research Block Grants program. While it did contain over $100m in one-off infrastructure grants, to be honest, the university sector was never going to get what it wanted. Because what it wanted was a reversal of decisions the government had previously made – namely capping the demand-driven system at 2017 levels and $323 million in cuts to research block grants. That was never going to happen.

Actually, there are a few happy vice-chancellors this morning. The Regional Universities Network are pretty gleeful. What with the National Party on the nose in rural electorates, a counter-metro, pro-regional narrative has been running strong in the government for a few months now (except that the Nationals keep own-goaling themselves).

Running on schadenfreude

There’s an underlying sense of Schadenfreude in the dull and predictable missives from the RUN. It has an Education Minister in Dan Tehan who speaks fluent country bumpkin and the RUN seems to have him on direct dial.

First there was the redirection of $135m in research funds to six regional campuses in knife-edge marginal seats. That was announced last year but the $135m appears to have shrunk to $92.5m in the budget, so the government must have stuck the loose change in its back pocket. Or bought another pork barrel with it. ,

There are other pro-rural initiatives in the budget, such as 4720 scholarships of up to $15,000 each over four years to study at a regional campus or TAFE. And international graduates are eligible for an additional year of post-study work rights if they stay and work in the regions. And teachers who work in very remote communities will have their student loan debt reduced.

Will any of it work? Well, international student will only go to regional campuses and stay on as graduates if they perceive it to be a legitimate route into permanent residency. At the moment, just 3% of international students study outside the major cities. It’s possible that Shepparton doesn’t have the same appeal as Sydney to a school leaver from Shanghai.

And reductions in student loans have been found over and over again to have little or no pulling power in changing what and where students study. We will see if things are different this time around (I think we already know the answer).

Neutralising the opposition

The budget was essentially a very expensive taxpayer-funded launch of the Coalition’s election campaign and a sneering attempt to neutralise Opposition policy plans. This included a $525m package for the vocational education sector. Labor’s Tanya Plibersek has been running strong for over a year now on her calls for renewal of the public training provider TAFE. It must have registered in focus groups because the government actually commissioned a review of the VET sector by former New Zealand politician Steve Joyce. That report hasn’t been made public yet. However, it must recommend the immediate pumping of some serious cash into the sector before it falls apart completely because there was an unexpected $500m plus.

The budget papers included the establishment of an independent National Skills Commission with nearly $50m in funding set aside. Talk about swings and roundabouts. The last independent commission – the Australian National Training Authority – was shut down by the previous Coalition government in 2005. It’s been a rollercoaster to hell for the VET sector since then. But the tea leaves are looking good.

If the Morrison government does get re-elected by some strange act of a vengeful god, then there’s half a billion buckeroos that weren’t available last week. If the Morrison government doesn’t get re-elected – as every sane commentator in the country anticipates – then the new Labor government has already flagged it will receive priority attention.

Back in black

To make it all funnier, Scott Morrison was silly enough to sign off a PR campaign that has been widely mocked. It supposedly celebrating the return of the government to surplus and uses an AC/DC song title Back in Black. (The fact that the budget is still in deficit and not expected to reach surplus until next year doesn’t seem to been of any importance). Morrison is simply not a native at this PR stuff and that is despite his previous career in marketing. Australians are still giggling about the photoshopped white shoes debacle that gave him, literally, two left feet.

Anyway, as Universities Australia and the Group of Eight pointed out that the loud trumpeting about a being back in black was rather empty when it also wanted to raid the Education Investment Fund. Having previously failed to get it turned into cash flow for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, this year’s bright idea was that it would be repurposed into an “emergency response fund”. One suspects that means a loose cash fund the government can dip into when it needs to bribe some voters.

The EIF was established as a $5bn nation-building fund for essential university and research infrastructure back in 2008. Four allocations were made the last in 2012. There have also been some raids by the former government reducing the size of the capital. It now sits at around $3.9bn.

The Go8 is also understandably up in arms about the termination of the one scholarship scheme – the Endeavour Leadership Programme – to fund another – the Destination Australia – which let’s be frank is just a bare arsed attempt to shore up those aforementioned marginal regional seats.

In its submission to to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Soft Power Review in 2018, the Go8 recommended the expansion of existing programmes, such as the New Colombo Plan and Endeavour, to further enhance Australian students’ capacity to develop skills and competencies in Asian languages and culture.

In the end, it probably doesn’t matter. An election will be called before the end of the week and in six weeks’ time we will have more certainty about whether it will another four years incremental ad hoc cuts and adjustments or a brave new world with all the disruption that brings.

 

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