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The Education Devolution

Submitted by on July 22, 2011 – 6:14 amNo Comment

In overseeing her first budget, Prime Minister Julia Gillard failed to adequately boost spending on universities. Joseph Younestracks the gradual decline of tertiary education funding over fifteen years and the havoc it is causing. Julia Gillard came to the Australian people with an agenda. After deposing Kevin Rudd on June 24 last year, she declared “education [will be] central to my economic agenda” Almost one year on, Gillard oversaw her first budget on May 10. She and Treasurer Wayne Swan presented the nation’s universities with an extra AUD 300 million.

University of Sydney. Photo by Sebastian Alaniz

 

But this is paltry, considering the education sector is worth over AUD 45 billion annually. A pittance, compared to the money that has been stripped from education in the years preceding. Indeed we need to remember the radical cuts that have been made in this sector to realise how big Gillard’s rebuilding task is.

The decline of Australia’s tertiary education sector goes back to 1996 – the year John Howard led his Liberal government to power. In his first budget, Howard seized AUD 5 billion from sector funding. Further gouging was to continue almost yearly.

By 2005, only 0.8 percent of Australian GDP was spent on tertiary education. Comparatively, other developed nations were spending 1.1 per cent, according to academic Rodney Tiffen and economic journalist Ross Gittins.

In their book How Australia Compares, Tiffen and Gittins found that while other countries had increased their tertiary education spending by up to 30 percent during the Howard years, only Australia had reduced its.

The gap in spending has since widened according to Universities Australia with Australian spending only a third of comparable OECD countries.

Australian universities also saw the abolition of Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) in 2006, and with it the loss of student fees and the services they bought.

One study of the impact notes net loss of income from amenities and service fees for 2009 will be around $200 million GST. Both activists and universities claim VSU means students are paying more for university services.

Funding cuts have also wreaked havoc on the quality of university teaching.

In 1996, student-teacher ratios across Australian universities were 14:1. By the end of the Howard government in 2007, this figure had ballooned to 21:1. The 2008 Bradley Review of Australian Higher Education Report found these ratios “unacceptably high”.

Dr. Youssef Taouk, a lecturer at the Institute for Advancing Community Engagement at the Australian Catholic University, says his experience mirrors the findings of the Bradley review. “Fifteen to twenty years ago, the average class was 13 to 15 students,” Dr Taouk said. His average class size is now 22 students.

The Bradley study also found that from 1996 to 2007, the number of full time lecturers had decreased with a greater reliance on part-time and casual lecturers. Dr Taouk laments the casualisation of the tertiary sector.

“Last semester, a full-time history professor retired from the place where I currently work. Instead of hiring another full-time history lecturer, two casual tutors/lecturers were hired to save money,” he said.

“Students are not able to have the consultation time that they would normally have with their lecturer. There is no rapport between a casual tutor and the students, and no relationship is created, which is an integral part of university learning.”

“In the end,” Dr Taouk said “it is the students who suffer most and the quality of education declines.”

To fill their government funding gap, between 1997 and 2007 universities increased their intake of full-fee paying international students by 230 percent.  Effectively the Howard government made up for its cuts by allowing in more of these foreign students – students who also didn’t require government subsidies.

Yet with the Australian dollar rising to record levels in 2011, international student numbers have already dropped. This puts further pressure on university budgets which have not seen a real increase in their federal grants since 1994.

Not surprisingly, given these conditions, Australian universities have also experienced a drop in world rankings, according to the QS World Universities Ranking Guide.

Funding cuts have also meant lecturers are now spending more time on administration type duties rather than teaching and researching – a problem experienced across disciplines.

Dr Youssef Taouk, a history lecturer, cites one colleague who is spending 80 percent of his time just on administration work. Fed-up, he has decided to leave the profession altogether. “It saddens me that the university sector will lose a passionate, dedicated, and incredibly humane lecturer because the system has changed,” Dr Taouk said.

Scientist, former university tutor and researcher at the Westmead Millennium Institute, Dr Vicki Kassouf says she sees her “collaborators and alumni colleagues struggling to manage research interests with daily work loads and administrative duties.”

She was blunt in her solution to malaise. “The Federal Government should increase its support to universities to enhance their research capacity in every aspect,” she said.

Another approach, according to Dr Richard Stanton, a senior communications lecturer at the University of Sydney, is an “increase funding for teaching in both teaching only and research universities.”

Dr Stanton also argued an industry-involved funding agreement for PhD students would boost research income and outcomes. “For full time students [I suggest] a partnership between government and industry sectors in which the PhD would be engaged ,” he said.

But such remedies are not on the cards. The next budget surplus is tentatively forecast for 2013. It is hard to see how any substantial new money will be directed to education given the current budget deficit of AUD 41 billion.

With such little regard paid to the tertiary sector, one wonders how the Prime Minister plans to “move Australia forward”? So far, her promised education revolution gets a fail grade.

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