Glyn Davis chats to Farrago

30 June 2013

In April, the Federal Government announced plans to cut $2.8 billion from tertiary funding in order to help pay for the Gonski school reforms. In an interview with Farrago, the University of Melbourne’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Glyn Davis was asked whether the link between university and school funding is more logical or political.

“I think it’s entirely political,” he said. “I can’t see any logical link between the two. As lots of people have said, if you believe in education then why would you support one education area by slashing another. The Government’s argument is that it needs money for Gonski and universities can afford to give money up. Well, that’s not a logical argument—that’s an opportunity argument.”

Davis, who recently finished his tenure as chair of the peak university body, Universities Australia, says its recent campaign to increase university funding by 2.5 per cent was not about attacking the Gonski report or the government.

“We don’t play politics. Universities are public entities, they can’t be part of a partisan campaign and we never are. But you can’t not say something when governments make decisions that directly affect what we do in universities,” he said.

Every student at Melbourne is set to lose over $200 in funding according to Davis. Although this doesn’t seem like much at face value, Davis says it will decrease the capacity to provide quality services. Equipment in laboratories, staff-student contact hours, student counselling and open hours in libraries may need to be reduced. In an unprecedented move, Davis wrote to students encouraging them to go on strike in May.

Davis is also worried the cuts will damage the University of Melbourne’s international reputation. Education is Australia’s third largest export sector, earning $18.6 billion in 2009 and providing around 125,000 jobs across Australia.

Davis explains how thousands in the workforce benefit from universities–even if they don’t know it. “What we know about international students is that for every dollar they spend at the university getting their education, they spend another two to the community–on accommodation, food, clothes, entertainment and so on. We have nearly 12,000 international students on this campus. That’s a lot of money going into the Melbourne economy,” he explained.

“Once upon a time universities were very small places relative to everything else. That’s just not true anymore. We’ve become very large organisations in our own right. That means what we do has an impact beyond our walls.”

In the wake of the most recent tertiary cuts, voices like that of Greens Senator Penny Wright argued that rather than slashing university funding, the government should get the money for the Gonski reforms from the Mining Tax. Davis is pessimistic about this option though.
“Well, if I understand the politics of the mining tax, so far it would be pretty hard to fund much out of that,” he told Farrago.

In the 1980s, universities sourced around 90 per cent of their funding from the government. However, these days it is around 60 per cent. Davis says this is a cause for concern.

“I wish we had public funding even at the average of the OECD world. Universities in Australia have to look to other sources because public funding is pretty modest,” he said.

The 2011 Australian Innovation System report lists Australia as 22nd out of 28OECD countries in public expenditure on tertiary education, spending in total only one per cent of GDP.

“People are focussed on the April decisions but actually the cuts we received last October were much bigger. They were research funding cuts and they’re the ones that I think have a real risk of, over time, diminishing our international reputation.”

In the first week of May more than a thousand professors signed an open letter entitled “University Cuts are Dumb Cuts”.

When asked about future action from tertiary providers, Davis is adamant the Universities Australia campaign is not under threat and that it will enter a new phase.

“People involved in the anti-mining tax campaign said the effect of that very famous campaign in 2010 wasn’t to stop there being a mining tax. It was to ameliorate the tax they did get, to have some push back on some of the proposals, and I see our campaign the same way,” he explained. “We’re trying to set a clear message to government and opposition that universities are already moderately funded and they shouldn’t make further cuts.”

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