Free Education Can Rebuild Australia’s Public Universities

If the federal government lifts annual higher education spending to 1% of GDP, it could repair the destruction inflicted by the COVID pandemic and make universities more accessible and affordable for all Australians, according to new research from the Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute.

The report analyses the current worrying state of Australia’s higher education sector based on current funding and policy trends, and provides an ambitious national vision for higher education that re-aligns the sector with its public service mission.

At the Crossroads, authored by Eliza Littleton, identifies seven key policy initiatives including free higher education for domestic students, that if implemented, would put Australia’s public universities on a path toward full revitalisation.

Key Findings

  • Delivering free undergraduate education for domestic students, an expanded public research program, thousands of secure jobs, and a new national governance body for the sector would cost an estimated $6.9 billion per year in additional higher education funding. This funding would generate almost 27,000 additional jobs (FTE) in higher education through easing workload pressures, additional researching funding and staffing a new independent higher education agency.
  • Since 2013, Federal Government funding for higher education has declined in real terms by 2.6%, despite a 23% increase in student enrolments.
  • Federal Government funding as a percentage of university revenue has more than halved since the 1980s, declining from 80% in 1989 to only 33% in 2019. In Budget 2022-23, the government forecasts a cut to real university funding of 3.4% over the forward estimates.
  • Universities responded to the pandemic shock with dramatic job cuts. In the 12 months to May 2021, 40,000 jobs in public tertiary education were lost, with 88% of these losses estimated within public universities.
  • The Federal Government’s Job-Ready Graduates reforms result in a reduction in government spending on student learning of $1 billion per year, while student contributions increase $414 million per year.
  • In the face of COVID shocks, sustained international student fee intake combined with reduced teaching costs through online distance education and job cuts have primed universities for healthy surpluses this financial year. Despite that, universities are continuing with measures that further downsize and casualise their workforces,
  • Reduced government spending and university deregulation has led to teaching and learning crisis. Rampant casualisation, short-term contract use, excessive workloads, and wage theft characterise employment arrangements in Australia’s universities.

"As devastating as the pandemic has been for Australia’s universities, the sector was being distorted and damaged by corporatisation, casualisation, and privatisation long before COVID arrived,” said Australia Institute economist and the report’s author Eliza Littleton.

"Australia can choose a future for higher education that facilitates a stronger economy, social mobility and enhanced democracy - all the while generating a source of high-quality careers for many thousands of Australians."

The report recommends several measures to revitalise Australia’s public universities:

  • Free undergraduate education for domestic students
  • Adequate public funding for universities
  • Fully-funded research
  • Measures to provide secure employment
  • Improved higher education governance
  • Caps on vice-chancellor salaries; and
  • Transparency in data collection.

“Australia needs an ambitious national vision for higher education that re-aligns the sector with its public service mission, and with the needs of students, staff, and wider society.

Please read the full report, At the Crossroads: What is the post-COVID future of Australia’s Public Universities? by Eliza Littleton. The report was commissioned by the National Tertiary Education Union.


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