Report finds decades of funding cuts and corporatisation have compromised Australian Universities

Jarrod Brown
Jarrod Brown

Decades of funding cuts and increased corporatisation in Australian universities have deteriorated working conditions for staff, affordability of degrees and the quality of education for students.

The claim is among the findings revealed in the release of the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work report. An alarming five out of six participants (83 per cent) of the survey’s respondents say they are concerned universities’ focus on profit undermines the quality of education. The results came from an online survey commissioned by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and conducted in March this year.

More than 1000 Australians were asked to share their insights and opinions on the issues facing higher education and, according to the NTEU’s National President, Dr Alison Barnes, the report paints a bleak picture of a sector in crisis. 

“Universities have been like a frog slowly boiling in water since the 1990s,” she said. 

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“Whether it’s funding cuts, insecure work, student debt or increasing class sizes, it’s patently clear from this polling there are high levels of concern about this decades-long trajectory.”

The report also shows that federal funding for universities from 1995 to 2021 (excluding government-funded HELP loans) has fallen from 0.9 per cent of GDP to 0.6 per cent of GDP, implying a $6.5 billion reduction in funding.

Currently, tuition fees account for 51 per cent of total funding for universities, compared with the OECD average of 23.3 per cent. The average HECS-HELP debt has doubled since 2008, from about $13,000 to almost $25,000 in 2022.

Of those polled, a large majority (76 per cent) reported being concerned about the growing student debt burden, with 67 per cent saying it costs too much to attend university.

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The report also found that, amidst rising enrolment rates, a lack of public funding has driven universities towards private sources of revenue. Since 1995, private revenue sources have reportedly almost doubled, increasing from 22 per cent to an all-time high of 43 per cent in 2019.

This corporatisation of universities has made cost-saving measures a priority, says the report, resulting in widespread wage theft, neglect of less ‘lucrative’ disciplines (such as visual arts and humanities), and an over-reliance on international student fees.

Dr Barnes also claims that this“aggressive corporatisation and abject policy failure” has had a devastating impact on university staff.

While total employment grew by 2.3 per cent from 1999 to 2019, casual employment grew almost twice as fast (4.5 per cent) and now accounts for 40 per cent of jobs at public universities.

The results come months before an upcoming federal review of Australia’s tertiary education system, known as the Universities Accord.

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According to finance data released by the federal Department of Education, the tertiary education sector brought in a whopping $38.9bn in revenue in 2021, reporting a record $5.3bn surplus.

For the past decade, the surplus has hovered between $1bn and $2bn, and the sector barely broke even in 2020.

“Now we have concrete evidence of what staff have been saying for years,” said Dr Barnes. “Funding cuts, insecure work and governance problems are fuelling massive problems across our cherished universities.”

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Jarrod Brown combines his background in journalism, copywriting and digital marketing with a lifelong passion for storytelling. Jarrod established his journalism career working on the education news and information site The Bursar. He lives on the Sunshine Coast - usually found glued to the deck of a surfboard.