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Australia: Cuts send a poor message to Asia


By Brian Stoddart

There is predictable and justified pushback from the Australian university sector concerning the $900 million eliminated from the higher education forward estimates to support the necessary investment in the basic education system.

Beyond the immediate operational risks, there is even worse news, potentially, as Asia tries to work out what Australia thinks it is doing strategically.

A few weeks ago came the announcement of the implementation team for the government’s Asian Century initiative, almost a year since that initiative itself was announced. Some quarters perceived this as a sign that Australia might actually start doing some of the things it had long said it was going to or should do.

The appointment of Craig Emerson as Tertiary Education Minister in addition to his Asian Century duties is helpful, even if he has little time with which to work politically.

Within quick time, however, the government then cut a substantial Asian languages program and quietly hacked away at the aid and development scholarships budget across some Asian jurisdictions. That was part of the crass transfer of $375m from the aid budget to support the doomed refugee-handling policy. Some would argue those scholarships are among the best long-term investments Australia might make.

Then came the real cuts to research allocations for Australian universities as part of the government’s search for a budget surplus, all on top of the removal of caps on student intake numbers.

In short, the universities suddenly face rising costs and lowering incomes beyond even the strictures of earlier years. The removal of the further $900m, with no guarantee there will be no more cuts, comes atop all that.

This approach is contradictory, counterproductive, confusing and chaotic. It comes as one survey shows that, perhaps for the first time, Indian students rate Australia as a university destination ahead of Britain. That is a huge breakthrough.

Yet the government now undercuts that confidence by removing substantial funds from the system. Those same Indian students will know their own government is reducing the higher education budget but that government has not placed its university system at the centre of a strategy by which to re-energise its interaction with Asia, or anywhere else for that matter.

The Indian case is important, in that Australia’s government also has argued it wants a new and improved relationship there. Higher education is one of the best “return on investment” avenues Australia has with the subcontinent, and this helps explain the commitment to science and technology constructed through several agreements. If higher education is so crucial in India, as it is in other Asian locations, then why is it attacked at home? Asia notices these things.

Consider the recently announced Asian university rankings. Those results confirm one thing: successful universities and university systems, as in China and Singapore, emerge from unequivocal government commitment, funding and long-term vision.

What we have in the Australian case is a clear strategy in reverse: no commitment, declining funding and no long-term vision.

Australia is saying one thing and doing quite another, again. That makes it difficult for Asian governments to comprehend what Australia may be like in five or 10 years, let alone in 15 or 20, when all their own thinking and planning is on a much longer time scale. Australian universities, then, face not only a testing time financially at home but also strategically in convincing their Asian counterparts they and their government are serious. (The Australian)

(Brian Stoddart is a higher education consultant and former vice-chancellor at La Trobe University.)

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