First published in with The Courier – https://www.thecourier.com.au/story/5173996/funding-cuts-jeopardise-investment-in-victorias-regional-universities/?cs=62
A two-year federal government freeze on university funding will impact investment in regional higher education, says peak body Universities Australia.
The federal government announced $2.2 billion of funding cuts to Australian universities in the mid-year economic and fiscal outlook on December 18. Most of the funding will be cut through a freeze on public university funding at 2017 levels for 2018 and 2019.
Universities Australia chief executive Belinda Robinson said some universities may be forced to reduce enrolments and investment in regional Victoria.
“Some will be forced to offer fewer places in some courses to avoid a budget black hole. Others will have to dig into critical maintenance funds or will lose the funding they need to run outreach into regional and remote Australia,” Ms Robinson said.
Federation University’s Vice Chancellor Helen Bartlett said the federal government’s funding freeze will jeopardise the university’s investment in regional locations, including Ballarat.
“In 2018 FedUni has committed to a multi-million dollar investment in its sports science program to serve regional students in Western Victoria and Gippsland,” she said.
“The funding freeze will put in doubt the benefits of such investment in the Ballarat and Churchill campuses.
“Our new Berwick Campus which only opened in 2017 also will not be able fully to serve its growing community.”
Professor Bartlett said each university was considering how to best manage the funding freeze, but for FedUni, the impact will be on courses that are growing to meet the demands of business and future students.
Universities Australia modelling projected 9500 student places will not be publicly funded this year, which may put pressure on universities to cap student enrolments.
But Australian Catholic University (ACU) provost professor Pauline Nugent said there were no significant changes to student numbers at the Ballarat campus in 2018.
“ACU remains heavily committed to Ballarat and there are no plans to restrict growth on our campus,” she said.
“Last year we opened a new building for the newly established physiotherapy school, and our state-of-the-art paramedicine labs were only recently built.
“We have a very strong relationship with the clinical school at the St John of God Hospital, Ballarat Health Services, and the Ballarat schools – and ACU remains committed to working with these organisations to best serve the population.”
Federal government funding changes in force from January 1 2018 also lowered the HECS repayment threshold. Graduates earning more than $45,000 a year will now have to pay one per cent of their income to repay their student debts, a decrease from the previous threshold of around $52,000.
Federation University’s professor Bartlett said regional students would be disadvantaged by the lowered HECS threshold and the extra restrictions placed on HELP and VET student loans.
“The Regional Universities Network is campaigning with member universities, including FedUni, for special government consideration to address the specific impacts of these changes on regional universities,” she said.
“We are hoping there will be a greater understanding by government on the unique challenges that regional universities face.”