Budget sweetener welcomed

An extraordinary outbreak of unanimity between Australia's academics and vice chancellors greeted the federal government's announcement last week that it had allocated Aus$16.5 billion (Pounds 7.9 billion) to higher education over the next three years.

Both the vice chancellors' committee and the National Tertiary Education Union warmly welcomed the budget allocation to universities. It will provide an additional 11,000 student places and an extra Aus$150 million for research and research infrastructure.

The reaction was hardly surprising given that the annual budget, handed down in Parliament last week, also raised taxes and slashed more than Aus$700 million from overall spending to reduce the deficit.

Universities had feared savage cuts but Simon Crean, minister for employment, education and training, managed to persuade his colleagues that education expenditure was not too high.

Releasing details of spending on the 36 public universities, Mr Crean said: "More student places and additional research funds demonstrate the government is not only delivering but increasing its commitment to the further development of a high-quality and accessible Australian higher education system."

Despite prior speculation there were no cuts. "We are not introducing upfront fees for Australian undergraduates and we have responded positively and quickly to the resource needs of the sector with both new policy and effective savings without cutting the overall funds," Mr Crean said.

He said the budget provided additional student places for states where populations were sharply rising but without redistributing them, as had been feared, from universities in the southern states where the population was either static or falling. The cost of creating the 11,000 additional places would amount to Aus$110 million.

The government had also boosted spending on research infrastructure by 57 per cent over the three years to Aus$300 million, and had provided additional grants of Aus$40 million to the Australian Research Council for competitive research programs, on top of the Aus$350 million already allocated for the triennium. Vocational education and training would receive an extra Aus$70 million in funding each year from 1997, Mr Crean said. This would bring to Aus$1.5 billion the government's contribution to growth over the four years from 1993.

Paul Keating, the prime minister, immediately embarked on the task of selling the budget to the academic community, extolling the government's record and arousing speculation that an election could be held later this year.

Last week, Mr Keating opened a campus of Victoria University of Technology in Melbourne. The campus, formerly a training centre for the mentally disabled, is where the city's founder, John Batman, carried out his first site surveys.

NTEU president Carolyn Allport congratulated Mr Crean on the budget outcome and said academics were particularly pleased the government had finally taken steps to address serious deficiencies in research infrastructure.

"For too long, staff and students have put up with inadequate facilities and equipment," Dr Allport said. "The union has argued that the declining level of infrastructure is a quality issue, limiting the capacity of universities to produce top-level research.

"The additional sum pledged will go some way towards meeting the Aus$125 million shortfall predicted by the National Board of Employment, Education and Training in 1993."

Frank Hambly, executive director for the vice chancellors, said the extra money allocated for research infrastructure was welcome.

But students were much less enthusiastic after the government again changed the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) and tightened eligibility for Austudy, the student financial support system. Under HECS, students must pay about 20 per cent of the cost of tuition but payments may be deferred until after they graduate and are earning at least the Australian average wage.

The changes increase the rates of repayment and introduce new levels at which voluntary payments may be made. They are expected to make savings of Aus$32 million over three years.

From 1996, only Australian citizens will be eligible to defer the HECS charge and obtain Austudy grants. New Zealand students and permanent residents who have lived in Australia for more than three years without taking out citizenship will no longer be able to postpone payment of fees or apply for Austudy.

The number of non-citizens affected by the changes is estimated to be 25,000.

The government said the changes were intended to prevent foreign students exploiting the HECS and Austudy systems. Recent reports claimed that thousands of overseas students obtained permanent residency and were gaining a university education, including Austudy grants, but then left the country without contributing to the cost.

For academics, the one gloomy aspect of the budget was the government's failure to guarantee additonal money for salary rises.

The union is seeking a 10 per cent wage increase for all university staff, with a 2 per cent rise now being negotiated through enterprise bargaining on each campus.

It wants the government to meet the cost of a further 8 per cent increase, which it has so far refused to do.

"We will continue to pursue this matter vigorously in the industrial and political arenas," Dr Allport declared. It was a warning that while the government had passed the spending test it still has an election to come, and probably before the year is out.

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