Free Undergraduate Education to Save Universities and Jobs: Report

The next federal government can save universities, make undergraduate education free for all Australians and employ tens of thousands of staff securely by lifting the public spend on higher education to just one per cent of GDP, according to a landmark new report.

The Australia Institute’s Centre For Future Work report shows, if the federal government brings its annual investment in higher education into line with the OECD average, we could fix the destruction inflicted by the COVID pandemic and make universities more accessible and affordable for all Australians.

Following decades of funding cuts, government inaction and the pandemic, more than 40,000 jobs were lost in public tertiary education in the 12 months to May 2021, 35,000 of those at public universities.

National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) National President Dr Alison Barnes said “Higher education needs to be made a priority in this election. The future of hundreds of thousands of staff and millions of students depends on it.

“The state of the sector now is deeply concerning. It is the consequence of the Morrison Government’s decision to exclude universities from JobKeeper, hike student fees, cut funding per student place, entrench casualisation and decimate curiosity-driven research funding.

“Thousands of jobs have been lost at public universities and the staff who are left are being kept on casual or short-term contracts. Those staff can’t plan for their future and often have their pay stolen by money-hungry universities who have built their business models on wage theft and insecure work.

“The next Australian Government could remove the financial barrier to higher education, employ more than 26,000 staff in secure full-time jobs, restore research funding, reduce the over-reliance on casual staff and establish a new higher education agency to improve governance.

“Free undergraduate education would be transformative for current and future students who are now facing more expensive degrees, mounting student debt and even the threat of being kicked off HECS if they don’t pass their courses.”

Australia Institute economist and the report’s author Eliza Littleton said “As devastating as the pandemic has been for Australia’s universities, the sector was being distorted and damaged by corporatisation, casualisation, and privatisation long before COVID arrived.

“Australia needs an ambitious national vision for higher education that re-aligns the sector with its public service mission, and with the needs of students, staff, and wider society.

“Australia can choose a future for higher education that facilitates a stronger economy, social mobility and enhanced democracy – all the while generating a source of high-quality careers for many thousands of Australians.”

The report’s recommendations include: 

  • Free undergraduate education for Australian students
  • Adequate public funding for universities
  • Fully-funded research
  • Measures to ensure secure employment
  • Improved higher education governance
  • Caps on vice-chancellor salaries; and
  • Transparency in data collection.

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