Budget 2014: mixed responses

Higher education experts are mixed in their responses to the federal government’s 2014 budget handed down by Treasurer Joe Hockey tonight.

Billions of dollars in cuts and increased taxes have to put the budget on a “clear track to surplus”, projected to be well over 1 per cent of GDP in a decade, Mr Hockey said in a speech to parliament in Canberra.

The treasurer announced sweeping changes to higher education with plans to cut public funding for university courses by 20% and expose students to potentially big increases in their loans with the removal of caps on the fees universities can charge.

One of the biggest savings ($3.2 billion over four years) may come from forcing graduates to pay back their Higher Education Loan Program (HELP) sooner while at the same time their debt will be higher as the government plans to apply higher interest rates up to 6 per cent.

But the government will extend Commonwealth Grant Scheme subsidies to higher education courses at the diploma, advanced diploma and associate degree level and will make funding available for courses provided by non-university providers, including private colleges.

Bruce Chapman, Director, Policy Impact, Crawford School of Economics and Government at the Australian National University said there was now a real capacity for universities to significantly increase fees.

How fast and by how much we just can’t know,” Mr Chapman said.

“However, it would be unlikely for universities to increase them above international student fee levels, which are currently about two and a half to three times higher than domestic fees,” he said.

Tim Pitman, Senior Research Fellow, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University, said research was “a winner” with the continuation of the Future Fellowships Scheme beyond 2015, which the previous Labor government did not commit to.

However, he warmed that the number of fellowships on offer would be approximately half previously awarded.

Stewart Riddle, Lecturer in Literacies Education at University of Southern Queensland, noted that for the first time, universities would be able to charge fees to doctoral candidates and other research higher degree students.

What it will do is promote a US-style system where elite universities can become their own version of the Ivy League schools, while others fall back in a college pack,” Mr Riddle said.

“It will lead to larger student debts, further inequalities in access to higher education and lead us down the same path as the US,” he said.

In a first reaction, president of the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) and Labor politician Meghan Hopper was highly critical of the Liberal Party’s first budget.

“You don’t need a postgraduate degree to see that this budget sucks for students,” Ms Hopper stated in a media release.

“The [government] claims they are supporting students when in fact they are forcing universities to charge students more, to support themselves.”