The Gillard Government has announced its plan to stump up funding for the Gonski Review reforms it has been contemplating since David Gonski presented his plan for school education reform to the government. The Prime Minister’s pitch to the states will be the commonwealth and the states will fund Gonski with a 2:1 ratio. But it is the Labor Government’s planned cuts to fund the education reform which have garnered the most attention and indeed significant criticism since the weekend announcement. And that criticism is warranted.
To help pay for the commonwealth’s share of the changes to school education, the government has decided, in their infinite wisdom, to cut $2.3 billion of funding from the university sector. This will include taking a knife to university grants, putting a cap on self-education tax deductions, compelling students to pay back scholarships and getting rid of the 10% discount for those who are able to pay their HECS debt up-front.
Then of course you have an efficiency dividend of 2% from January next year, reducing to 1.25% the following year. This is a technical way of saying universities must do better with less. In and of itself this is not necessarily a bad thing, though if it results in front-line jobs being trimmed it should rightly be slammed. It is hard to see this not leading to cuts at the coal-face.
There is at least one measure announced at the weekend which is sensible and more sustainable for the budget and one that has the potential to be either good or bad for the fiscal bottom-line.
The decision to scrap the 10% discount for paying HECS up-front is a good move, providing it does not lead to more people moving overseas and taking their university debts with them. At present there is approximately $26 billion in unpaid HECS debts and that has the potential to balloon even further, perhaps aided by this budget measure.
One move that can be praised is the decision to put a cap on self-education tax deductions. This will prove a sustainable budgetary measure which is not likely to act as a disincentive in any way, either over the short or long-term.
Craig Emerson was at pains on the weekend to make the point that education funding will still increase over time. The Tertiary Education Minister made the point that the spending increase was simply delayed by two years. A delay however is still a cut, especially when it involves money promised to a particular sector. There will be real people who miss out on real assistance and real tough decisions made by real universities which will hit people involved in that level of education.
One must not forget that the ALP Government decided in the first place that there was a need to continue to increase the funding to the university education sector. There was obviously a reason for that, a real and tangible need for extra funds to flow to our universities to help more people get a better education.
Why the government thought it was a smart strategic move to take such a swing at universities is alone, beyond comprehension. Why the ALP decided they needed to cut education funding to fund education is quite intriguing. There are a number of other areas of public policy which could, at the very least, do with a bit of a trim.
The Gonski reforms absolutely have to happen. The loading for dealing with different types of disadvantage is essential in going towards ensuring there is equality of opportunity at the heart of our education system.
But tinkering with one level of education to help deal with another is just utter stupidity.