Universities are politically irrelevant. They have a month to do something about it.

Stone the crows! Universities are big, but ignored! Higher education employs 113,000 people; teaches 934,000 local students and generates $9.7bn in export income from international students studying here.[i] While well behind medicine, it does okayish on the motherhood scale of community approved good things. [ii]

And yet, universities and the various academic interest groups are largely ignored in elections.

The challenge following the Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday is to get their issues on the agenda and force both sides of politics to announce what they will do in government.

The Crows wish them luck. Sure, the industry union is backing Greens candidates in the Senate and Adam Bandt in Melbourne (it is also supporting Andrew Wilkie in Denison).[iii] However, it will surprise the Crows if the wage disputes now underway across the country and the shortfall in teaching and research funding gets much of a mention in the campaign.

It is not as if the system does not make its case to anybody who will listen. Articulate vice chancellors are always in the media. And the various industry groups lobby and spruik their stories as strongly as budgets allow. Universities Australia ran a comms campaign for months earlier this year demanding restoration of funding, which it claims won community support.[iv] But, if it did, neither government nor opposition heard the message.

Overall, this year so far is a shocker for the system.

Back in April, then universities minister Craig Emerson sprang a Saturday surprise, announcing $2.3bn in cuts.[v] This came on top of reductions to research infrastructure support last year, only some of which will return, in dribs and drabs. [vi] Yes, a government could devote the entire budget to higher education and academics would still complain about underfunding. But the industry vice chancellors through research lobbies to union leaders, all – make a strong case the system is stretched.[vii]

What is equally apparent is that neither political party is much bothered about it.

The government’s line is that overall funding is increasing, which is true.[viii] This is due to the Gillard Government’s policy of funding an undergraduate place for every local student a university will accept. [ix]

But what the feds don’t explain is that funding per student is down which puts pressure on teaching and all the other services supported by a share of this source.

The universities have screamed about this since 2012 when Chris Evans, Higher Education minister, four back (Labor likes to share the job around), filed and forgot the Lomax Smith Base Funding Review. But nobody in politics, other than the Greens, has listened.[x]

Or is likely to. Universities Minister (at least he was this morning) Kim Carr says that, while he wants to help, he has to work within “budgetary constraints” (whatever they are on any given date).[xi]  Opposition leader Tony Abbott makes it clear that the medical research sector is safe if he wins the election. However, the best the rest of the system can hope for is less red tape and to be left alone.  [xii]

This confounds the Crows. The industry is not a mendicant. Unlike child and aged care it contributes to rather than takes from the economy and it is fundamental to the futures of millions of Australians and, lord knows, its leaders make enough noise about their needs. Yet, the start and end of life welfare lobbies are probably higher up MPs issues lists than the condition of the campus in, or, near their electorates.

Universities had a win in Friday’s budget rewrite with a hold on the plan to cap self-education tax deductions [xiii] They were worried the cap was going to take a big chunk out of the professional education market for everything from law to medicine through business and on to teaching, worth $1.16bn in tax deductions in 2011-12.[xiv]

Just about every university and academic interest group lined up against the cap. More significant, so did dozens of professional and industry associations – which is what the Crows suspect unscrewed the cap.[xv]

It sends a signal to the universities that they do better when they form alliances with organisations prepared to lobby.

And they will do really well when they enlist their (less large than enormous) customer base to support what they sell. To the Crows, convincing a million students and their families that higher education is important now, and for the future, sounds like a start.

Universities need to forget the scholarly reserve and start to sell hard. And find some friends who can help.


For speeches and strategy, articles and op eds, cases constructed and communicated call Stephen Matchett 0417 469 093




[i] Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education, 2012 student summaries @ http://goo.gl/zxKt1F ,  Staff count by current duties, 2012 @ http://goo.gl/G2HVcy  Australian Education International, “Research Snapshot” May 2013 @ http://goo.gl/qgxuNW  recovered on August 4

[ii] Universities Australia, “Public perceptions of Australia’s universities,” February 2013 @ http://goo.gl/XhYUUd recovered on August 4

[iii] National Tertiary Education Union, “NTEU to spend $1 million on election campaign to defend higher education,” June 18 @ http://goo.gl/iWlYVP, “NTEU throws support behind Andrew Wilkie,” July 30 @ http://goo.gl/Xwv4Wn recovered on August 4

[iv] Universities Australia, “Eight out of ten believe cuts could threaten future as new ads launched,” May 6 2013 @ http://goo.gl/5mnwVJ recovered on August 4

[v] Stephen Matchett, “Gillard to pull $2.3bn of funding from unis to pay for Gonski reforms,” The Australian, April 14

[vi] “Swan cuts uni research funds by $500m,” The Australian, October 22 2012, “Labor tosses sector a few sweeteners,” The Australian, May 13

[vii] John Stewart, “Universities unhappy with cuts to funds,” ABC TV, Lateline, April 15 @ http://goo.gl/G9Bixk recovered on August 4

[viii] Craig Emerson, “Statement,” April 13 @ http://goo.gl/yiJkNu recovered on August 4

[ix] Stephen Matchett, “Universities set to expand,” The Australian, September 14 2011

[x] “University funding hike rejected,” The Australian, January 28

[xi] Susan McDonald, “Christopher Pyne criticises Labor over intention to revisit caps on university places,” ABC News, July 2 @ http://goo.gl/LGnh2v recovered on August 4

[xii] Tony Abbott, “Address to Universities Australia Higher Education Conference,” February 28 @ http://goo.gl/qpPdT6 recovered on August 4

[xiii] Australian Technology Network, “Sanity prevails in decision to defer cap on self-education,” August 2 @ http://goo.gl/dq7y7H recovered on August 4

[xiv] Parliamentary Library, “Budget Review 2013-14: Taxation –reforms to work-related self-education expenses,” nd @ http://goo.gl/8mhsei recovered on August 4

[xv] Scrap the cap @ http://goo.gl/b8mZss recovered on August 4