Within seconds of Wayne Swan finishing his budget speech, medical researchers were celebrating. At 7.59pm, the Discoveries Need Dollars campaign tweeted: “Success!!”

In the weeks leading up to the budget, medical researchers staged a high-profile campaign to fight rumoured $400 million cuts to National Health and Medical Research grants. In fact, money for medical research has increased. The research grants budget for 2011-12 is $746 million, up from $715 million.

Others celebrating include Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and regional universities.

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The government will provide $500 million from the Education Investment Fund for new buildings for regional universities, plus “seed funding” of $20 million to set up a multipartner university campus on the mid-north coast of NSW.

There is also $110 million to increase the “loading” paid to regional campuses to compensate them for the higher cost in providing education in country areas.

This might go some way to tackling the problems plaguing regional universities, which are not primarily about a lack of new buildings. Most regional campuses suffer from low student demand for their courses, a problem that will only be exacerbated when city universities are allowed to enrol more students from next year.

The other problem is low research output, except in a few specialised disciplines, such as marine biology at Queensland’s James Cook University. The budget cuts $20.7 million from a scheme that encourages less research‑intensive universities to develop their research capability.

Champagne corks should also have been popping in the Majura Business Park at the back of Canberra Airport, home to the Australian Research Council. Despite concerns that the ARC’s budget would be cut to make up for the restoration of medical research funding, Kim Carr, the minister for innovation, industry, science and research, has protected the increased ARC funding he won in the 2009 budget.

However, the Cooperative Research Centres won’t be celebrating. The CRCs will lose  $33.4 million over four years, which will be partly redirected to fund a scheme to encourage Australians to study science.

Students who pay their HECS up-front will have even less to celebrate. As already revealed, the discount for up-front payment has been halved, to 10%.

The budget has allocated funding to lift the caps on the number of students universities can enrol beginning next year. It hopes that, by 2025, 40% of Australians aged 25 to 34 will have a bachelor’s degree or better, compared with about 32% at the moment.

The government has provided $1.2 billion to fund additional places, plus $550 million for the indexation of funding per student to cover increasing salaries and other costs.

The exact cost of places will depend on how many more students universities enrol. This will depend on how far universities want to lower their entry standards to attract new students.

Already, there are courses around the country that require an Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank of between 40 and 59. For example, arts at the University of Ballarat (Mt Helen) is 40.75 and nursing at Edith Cowan (Joondalup) in WA is 55. The top ATAR is 99.5. Scores below 50 usually mean that students have failed one- or two-year 12 subjects.

If high-status universities enrol more students, demand for less fashionable campuses will fall still further. The potential damage to regional universities is greater than the likely benefits of the increased funding announced in the budget.

But never fear, the My University website is planned to begin next year. Because there are no common university tests to provide equivalent information to Naplan results, the website will instead report on the results of graduate satisfaction surveys, better known as popularity polls.

*Erica Cervini writes the higher education blog Third Degree

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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