Here's what we know so far about the gov’s plan to cut uni funding

May 02, 2017
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Another federal budget, another hit to the student wallet. While not quite as brutal as the slasher novel that was Joe Hockey’s 2014 budget, there’s still a lot to be concerned about – including cuts to university funding, an increase in fees and changes to HECS repayments.

Cuts to uni funding

First up, there’s Treasurer ScoMo’s “efficiency dividend”, which will see roughly $2.8 billion slashed from vice chancellors’ bottom lines over the next four years. As justification, the government is pointing to a new report that says university revenues are growing faster than their costs.

While the plans have at least abandoned the 20 per cent funding hit once dreamed up by Chris Pyne, experts are already warning that scholarships and student services, which make university more accessible for those on lower incomes, will suffer.

Lowering the HECS threshold

Also on the cards is a lowering of the HECS repayment threshold from $55,874 per annum to just $42,000. This last change will mean an extra 200,000 graduates will be forced to make repayment – though at a lower rate (1 per cent) than their higher-earning counterparts. Those pulling in $55,874 a year will stick with the original 4 per cent rate and those on over $84,513 will pay back 7 per cent (which used to be reserved for those earning over $91,426).

Proposed fees

Then, there’s the fees themselves. If the proposed package gets through the Senate, they’re set to increase by 1.8 per cent next year, rising to a total increase of 7.5 per cent by 2021. Students will also have to cover 46 per cent of the cost of their degree – up from 42 per cent under the current model. The cost of a typical teaching or nursing degree is set to rise by $1250, while a six-year law degree will set you back an extra $3900.

Student reporters locked out of the lockup

Last night, Education Minister Simon Birmingham outlined much of these gory details in a speech to university and business leaders, describing the changes as “fundamentally fair”.

Despite this show of confidence, that same day, every student newspaper that applied for access to the May Budget lockup was told they would not be allowed to attend.

The Budget lockup is a yearly event where journalists are walked through the Federal budget by members of the Treasury Department. Reporters are admitted around noon and not permitted to leave or communicate with the outside world until 7:30pm, when the budget is released to the public.

According to the editor of the ANU’s student paper Woroni, Jasper Lindell, it’s been something of a tradition for student media to go along for the ride since 2014.

And, considering the sharp impact this year’s budget could have on students, he says being locked out of the lockup will be detrimental to their coverage.

“It came as a bit of a shock, because there is a precedent – or, we thought there was a precedent – for student publications to be accredited for the lock-up,” Jasper tells Hijacked.

In an open letter published on Monday, the editors of seven university publications condemned their “collective rejection” from the lock-up, calling the decision “suspect”.

“It is an unsettling coincidence that university publications are being excluded in precisely the year that controversial university funding reforms are being announced,” the letter reads.

“This move smacks of a government unwilling to face the scrutiny of young people, a government which does not wish to engage with those who will be directly affected by their policies and a government which believes it can avoid criticism simply by turning journalists away at the door.”

It is an unsettling coincidence that university publications are being excluded in precisely the year that controversial university funding reforms are being announced.

Editor of the University of Sydney publication Honi Soit Michael Sun says his publication has been present at the lock-up for the past three years.

“The Treasury has not responded to us in any detail,” he tells Hijacked.

While Scott Morrison is citing “space concerns” as the reason behind the decision, neither editor is buying it.

“I don’t see how the number of journalists covering this has proliferated to such an extent this year that there is no longer any space for us,” Jasper says.

Michael fails to see how student or youth media is distinguishable from other forms of community media, which have been allowed in this year.

“It does seem quite a cowardly move,” he says. “They know what they’re doing is incorrect, and instead of engaging in reasonable discourse about these actions, they’ve decided to actually censor – I would say this is an act of censorship against the student media that would be covering this.”

Universities Australia has also slammed the proposed changes, saying they will hurt the economy “given the crucial role universities play in economic growth and job creation.” Good old Plibs of Labor also weighed in, saying that raising student fees shows the government is “out of touch”.

And she may be onto something.

Michael, who is studying a Bachelor of Media and Communications, says it’s “hard enough” to afford rent and basic living costs without the income repayment threshold being lowered.

“With the added pressure of HECS and the university costs themselves, it’s going to be difficult to envision a future where people are going to be able to access university with ease.”

Jasper admits he hasn’t had the time yet to reflect on the personal ramifications of the new funding model. “I think any move to put more of the burden on students is bad,” he says. “But I also think that if this reform proposed by the government is robust and sensible, that they would open themselves to scrutiny by student organisations.”

Joel Svensson

Business major, journalism minor and freelance writer, Joel pretends to be clever at La Trobe University.

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