Last year’s Budget was accompanied by a flurry of media releases from Julia Gillard trumpeting funding measures for higher education. Universities responded with a barrage of releases thanking Gillard. The government’s strategy of downplaying expectations worked wonders, with the sector grateful to receive very modest funding, mainly for capital works.

This year’s Budget has been accompanied by a deafening silence from both groups.

The only minister to announce anything for higher education was Kim Carr, the minister responsible for the Innovation, Industry, Science and Research portfolio. He confirmed funding previously announced for research centres at James Cook University in Queensland and the Australian National University, together with a new national centre for public policy.

The main winner in education is the vocational sector, which receives $660 million as part of the government’s “Skills for Sustainable Growth” package.

Gillard has largely ignored the university sector: there are barely any crumbs in this year’s Budget. One, announced in the Treasurer’s speech (the closest Wayne Swan got to mentioning higher education), was the establishment of a Centre for International Finance and Regulation.

The Government has allocated $24.1 million over four years to train financial regulators from Australia and the Asia Pacific region. Which university will host the centre is up for grabs, but whoever wins will have to contribute to the centre’s establishment.

The setting up of a rural tertiary hardship fund and changes to youth allowance made it into the Budget, but these were announced earlier in the year.

Even Gillard’s announcement in March that the sector would get a My University website failed to rate a mention: there are no details about timing, content or funding.

At the end of its first term, the Rudd government gives the impression of having dropped the ball on higher education. Although many academics and students may not have liked the Howard government’s strategy for the sector, at least it had one. Students would pay higher fees, supposedly to fund improvements in quality.

The Rudd government scrapped full fees for local undergraduates, and in 2012 will lift the caps that prevent universities enrolling more local students. But the government has no strategy for the sector’s principal problem: public funding for local students does not cover the cost of providing a decent education.

Universities therefore focus on more lucrative fee-paying international students and rebadge high-demand undergraduate degrees as masters courses as a way of charging fees to local students.

Gillard’s vision seems to be that universities will become bigger, but remain mediocre.

With many leading northern hemisphere universities struggling to cope with government funding cuts and declines in investment income, this year would have been the perfect time for Australia to show it was serious about a high quality university sector.

Higher education is way off the government’s radar and seems unlikely to be an election issue. The education revolution is still a long way off.

*Erica Cervini writes the higher education blog, Third Degree

Peter Fray

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