John Ross: Australian universities fear cuts to funded postgraduate places

University of Melbourne

Australian universities fear further cuts to their publicly funded student numbers.

Following the freezing last December of government funding for bachelor’s degrees, which leaves institutions looking to expand or even maintain student numbers facing a cut in real-terms funding, an education department discussion paper now proposes fresh approaches to the allocation of Commonwealth-supported places, or CSPs, for postgraduate programmes and sub-bachelor’s courses. These subsidies are distributed in an ad hoc manner reflecting historical deals with individual institutions.

Australian universities have both subsidised and full-fee-paying students at these levels – unlike undergraduate programmes, in which providers offering CSPs cannot enrol full-fee domestic students. There is little clarity around why some institutions receive more subsidised postgraduate places than others, or why some students pay tens of thousands of dollars less than classmates on the same courses.

The new paper suggests ways of improving clarity, saying subsidised places could be allocated using metrics such as student satisfaction, graduate outcomes or admission rates for disadvantaged students.

But the paper also proposes a 5 per cent reduction in each university’s allocation of commencing places in postgraduate, sub-bachelor’s and enabling programmes, without specifying what would happen to the discarded places or whether they would include CSPs.

Some university administrators have interpreted this as an intention to establish a reallocation pool, with places garnered through the 5 per cent cut to be redistributed according to yet-to-be-determined criteria.

But others fear that the mechanism will be used to further cut funding for graduate study, after the government revealed plans to jettison 3,000 postgraduate CSPs in its 2017 budget – citing unused allocations to justify this cut, even though some universities had over-enrolled.

The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations said the consultation process was being used to construct a hit list for the 2017 cut. “The department is doing the dirty work of conducting a review to decide which postgraduate courses will fall victim,” it said.

“While in general it is good to examine higher education policy and funding allocations, Capa is cautious given the cuts to universities over the past year.”

The paper has been seen alongside the government’s A$135 million (£76 million) funding package for regional university study which, it later emerged, was to be funded through unspecified cuts to research funding.

Times Higher Education sought further details on the plans for postgraduate place allocation. An education department spokesman said that the paper was not proposing to cut the overall number of places, but did not say whether there would be any change to CSPs.

A senior university administrator said he expected CSPs to be further reduced. “As a sector we have to wait and see how this pans out,” he said.

Administrative staff at another university said suspicion was justified given the paper’s lack of guarantees. “Growth will be the key issue for the sector,” one said.

“You’ll always get a few institutions that under-enrol or over-enrol. The real issue is whether we value graduate education as a means of enabling people to participate fully in the workforce. When the government made the first tranche of cuts it said it would look at future mechanisms for growth. What we’ve got instead is future mechanisms for redistribution, and no net growth.”

Originally posted in Times Higher Education

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