Three reasons to cut higher education funding

Gavin Moodie, Victoria University of Technology

Australia should redirect resources from higher education to more just ends such as overseas aid and international conflict resolution, to more worthwhile areas such as health and housing, and to more important levels of education such as early education, secondary education and TAFE.

Redirect Resources According to Need

Australian citizens’ need for higher education is much less than most other peoples’ need for food, shelter and clean water. Australia is ten times wealthier than most other countries. The World Bank reports that in 2000 Australia’s per capita income was $US20,530. This is 27th highest out of the 207 countries reported, almost 50 times the per capita income of low income countries ($US420) and more than four times the income of upper middle income countries ($US2,620) (World Bank, 2001b). There is no merit or justice in such an inequitable distribution of wealth in the world; there is no merit or justification for almost all Australians—including many on social welfare—to be so much wealthier than most other people in the world are. Our first priority should be to redress the obscene inequity in the allocation of resources between people.

A start would be to increase Australia’s foreign aid to the agreed international standard of 0.7% of gross domestic product. Australia currently allocates a paltry 0.28% of its GDP to foreign aid (ACFOA, 2000). To reach 0.7% of GDP would require an increase of $2.6 billion or about half of the Commonwealth’s higher education funding.

Australian citizens’ need for higher education is much less than most other peoples’ need for food, shelter and clean water.

Arguably more people suffer more from war than even from hunger and poverty. The peoples of Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq, Kashmir, Palestine, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Uigur in west China and many others are suffering greatly from unresolved conflicts. Their need for peace is far greater than Australian citizens’ need for more or better higher education. Australia should therefore reallocate resources to support international conflict resolution.

Australia should ratify the convention for the International Criminal Court and should encourage others to do so, so that the allegations of crime that lead to continuing reprisals and consequent killings and harming of innocent bystanders in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq, Kashmir, Palestine and Sri Lanka may be dealt with fairly according to law.

Australia should redirect resources to promote the peaceful resolution of differences in Chechnya, Kashmir, Palestine, Sri Lanka, Tibet the former Yugoslavia and Uigur rather than by the wars of insurgency and repression that are being waged now.

Redirect Resources to More Important Areas

Even within Australia there are much greater needs than higher education. The conspicuous exceptions to Australian’s general wealth are the thousands of Aboriginal peoples who live in Third World conditions of inadequate nutrition, no reticulated water, poor sanitation, inadequate housing and lack of access to basic health services. Consequently Indigenous Australians suffer infant mortality and life expectancy rates more similar to the Third World than to the rest of Australia.

Aboriginal peoples die 15-20 years younger than the Australian population, with 23 times the average death rate from infections of the kidney, 12-17 times the average for diabetes (one of the highest rates in the world) and 3-5 times the death rate from chronic respiratory disease. Aboriginal babies are twice as likely to be of low birth weight, to die or fail to thrive. Aboriginal people are 10 times more likely to suffer blindness than the general population and twice as likely to be admitted to hospital. Indigenous Australians suffer higher than average rates for mental disorders, alcohol and other drug related conditions, circulatory diseases, nervous system disorders, skin diseases and infectious and parasitic diseases. These conditions reach an acute stage because of lack of early attention—either because services are not available, or because they are inaccessible to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (ATSIC, 2001).

Australia should allocate resources first to ensuring that all Australians have a reasonable expectancy and quality of life.

Redirect Resources to More Worthwhile Education

We should allocate resources first to ensuring that all Australians have a reasonable expectancy and quality of life.

Education is important for communal and individual economic, social and cultural development, but higher education is less important than other sectors of education. We know that the most important education for a person’s future is their formative education before the age of ten (World Bank, 2001b), yet pre-school and primary education remains under-provided and under-funded. Childcare workers are paid $26,000 per annum, that is, at 80% of average weekly earnings, and primary school teachers are paid just above average weekly earnings. In contrast higher education teachers are paid on average almost twice average weekly earnings.

The increasingly inequitable access to higher education and rewarding jobs in Australia originates at least partly in secondary education, to which resources should be redirected to give young people a fairer start in life.

Australia needs to develop high level skills and understanding in its population, of course, but Technical and Further Education does so much more equitably and efficiently than higher education.

Some 25% of all TAFE students are from a low socio-economic status (SES) background, comparable with their share of the total participation (ANTA, 2000: 25). By contrast, Australia’s higher education institutions admit only 14.6% of their students from low SES backgrounds, under-representing low SES students by almost half. Unsurprisingly, the group of eight elite universities has the most inequitable access: only 9.6% of their students are of low SES. The other higher education institutions admit a much higher but still under-representative 16.9% of their students from low SES backgrounds (DETYA, 2001).

‘Hero’ Science Doubted

A common argument is that Australia needs ‘world class’ science to lead the new information economy (AVCC, 2001). But this is claim is more asserted than demonstrated. Finland and Japan have highly advanced technical economies without a preponderance of Nobel laureates and other hero scientists.

It is equally probable that an advanced technical economy is achieved not by the development of scientific excellence in a few, but by the wide diffusion of high level technical skills amongst many. Australia should not concentrate large amounts of money on a few hero scientists in higher education, but allocate these resources to TAFE so that technical education in Australia has the resources and participation at advanced levels of technical education in Germany and other European countries.

High Culture Subsidised

An advanced economy is achieved not by excellence in a few, but by wide diffusion of technical skills among many.

It is also often argued that scholarship is a good in itself that should be pursued for its intrinsic worth. This is true, but it does not justify supporting the study and criticism of art, literature and music so extensively in universities while most artists, writers and musicians who create the subject of this study and criticism work in penury. Australia would have a much richer culture if the funds currently allocated to paying art, literature, and music theorists at almost twice average weekly earnings in the academy were reallocated to engaging twice as many artists, writers and musicians working in the community.

Neither is there any justification for subsidising high culture appreciated by the few in preference to popular culture appreciated by many, many more people. Nor is higher education the most effective sector to disseminate the appreciation and practice of the creative arts and culture generally. Adult and community education promotes the creative arts more broadly and much more cheaply than higher education.


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) (2001) Health policy

Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA) (2000) Submission to the 2000-2001 federal budget

Australian National Training Authority (ANTA) (2000) Annual national report 1999 Volume 3—national vocational education & training performance ANTA: Brisbane

Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee (AVCC) (2001) Our universities: our future

Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs (DETYA) (2001) Students 2000: Selected Higher Education Statistics

World Bank (2001a) Why invest in ECD?

World Bank (2001b) GNI per capita 2000

Gavin Moodie says that his socialism probably arises from guilt at his privileged upbringing and current wealth, although his friends observe that these days his activism seems increasingly restricted to the armchair. He has been a university administrator since 1975 and is currently head of quality and strategy at Victoria University of Technology. He writes a regular column on university administration for the Australian Higher Education Supplement.

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