This article was submitted by Larissa Fedunik, NUPSA’s Student Communications Officer.
It’s budget time
It’s that time of year again: the release of the Federal Budget Statement for 2019-2020. The catchphrase appears to be “back in the black” (historical note: from the beginning of the century, this referred to the colour of ink accountants used to mark positive earnings), meaning that the budget is projected to be in surplus*.
But numerous sectors have voiced their opposition to the proposed budget – including Universities Australia, who called it a “bad decision”, and Science & Technology Australia, who described the budget as a “missed opportunity.”
So what policies has the Government laid out which will affect the postgraduate sector? You might be wondering how it will affect your own personal budget. Can you expect some generous handouts, austerity measures or no marked difference at all? Read on to find out if this budget really is “as black as it’s painted.” (Sorry…)
*Disclaimer 1: The budget surplus is a prediction based on the adoption of the Budget Statement proposals and models of the Australian economy**. (See here for more details.)
**Disclaimer 2: Your Student Communications Officer is, unfortunately, not an economist.
A promise, not a plan…
First up, it’s important to note that the Budget is a proposal, as opposed to a plan. New programs will require passing new legislation, which will depend on either the Coalition Government being re-elected in the upcoming election or a new government adopting these proposed measures. So consider the following to be an election statement – and if you’re eligible to vote, adjust your vote as you see fit!
Tax breaks and payment assistance
You’ve probably noticed the Government focusing heavily on the Budget’s tax offsets. However, these tax breaks will mainly affect those earning between $45,0000 – $200,000 per year. The Council of Postgraduate Associations has crunched the numbers in their Federal Budget Explainer and estimates that over 63% of full-time domestic postgraduate coursework students will see no tax relief through these measures.
In terms of financial assistance, the Budget will also provide an energy assistance payment of $75 for singles and $125 for couples under set circumstances, such as those on pensions, carers, single parents and (after a bit of last-minute Budget wizardry!) NewStart recipients. Based on 2018 figures provided by Universities Australia, CAPA estimates that this will affect a maximum of 13.3% of domestic postgraduate coursework students and 12.8% of domestic research students.
While the energy assistance payment will help many, those on youth or student payments are excluded. This means students on Austudy or Abstudy will miss out.
University scholarships and higher education spending
In terms of postgraduate study, and the tertiary education sector more broadly, unfortunately it’s largely a case of “move along, nothing to see here.” Those of us hoping that Austudy would be extended to postgraduate students (as CAPA have requested for several years) have missed out again – there are no new changes to postgraduate study or funding arrangements.
Regional universities and TAFE will benefit from the implementation of a $93.7 million scholarship initiative, which aims to enrol over a thousand students at TAFE and regional unis. As part of the Destination Australia program, over 1000 scholarships will be offered to Australian and International students (worth $15,000 a year) to encourage a greater number of tertiary enrolments at remote campuses.
Regrettably, the funding landscape remains largely bleak for tertiary institutions. You probably remember the shake-up from the 2017 MYEFO (Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook), which resulted in Higher Education cuts worth an estimated $2.1 billion and a net decrease in university funding of 5% by 2020. The 2019-2020 Budget continues the policies implemented by the 2017 MYEFO, which include freezing the Commonwealth Grant Scheme (CGS) funding for bachelor-level courses at 2017 levels, lowering the HELP repayment threshold to $45,000 and reducing the number of postgraduate scholarships available. The Research Support Program, which covers the costs of uni research not covered by competitive grants, also received funding cuts of $328 million in the 2018 MYEFO.
The 2019-2020 Budget sets out the further abolition of the $3.9 billion Education Investment Fund, which funded research infrastructure, to pay for the new Emergency Response Fund. Additionally, almost $11 million has been removed from the Indigenous Student Success Program (ISSP) in this budget.
Australian research funding
This year’s budget has good news in store for medical research: the Government will inject $20 billion into the Medical Research Future Fund by 2020-2021.
The climate solutions fund, which will pay businesses and farmers to reduce their carbon footprint, has been allocated $2 billion over 15 years. This is in contrast to the 10-year spending plan in the Government’s previous emissions reduction policy, which has renewed criticism of their weak climate policies.
ANSTO (the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation) will receive added funding to increase nuclear medicine production and improve environmental protections, while space infrastructure, agricultural innovation, astroparticle physics research and Antarctic science will also receive investment boosts.
Beyond targeted research, the Budget provides $3.4 million to the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) program. In recognition of the lack of gender equity in this sector, this program aims to support women and gender diverse groups in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths & Medicine).
However, concerns have still been raised that the budget allocation to R&D is lacking. While there have thankfully been no funding cuts, the CSIRO, Geoscience Australia and the CRC program have only received funding increases to meet the costs of inflation. For the business sector, support for Australian business innovation through the R&D Tax Incentive is projected to decline and funding to the Entrepreneurs’ Program and Industry Growth Centres will be reduced.
Mental health support
With growing concerns surrounding the mental health of Australian uni students, mental health support is a key priority. The 2019-2020 Budget sets out an additional $461 million in funding for youth mental health and suicide prevention, with $111 million for the creation of 30 new Headspace services for young people. However, Headspace works with people aged 12-25, so older students will not benefit.
Additional mental health initiatives include new community mental health centres, eating disorder treatment centres and funding to support healthy workplaces, with more information available here. Additional funding is also set out for the prevention of violence against women and children, such as the sexual assault and domestic violence counselling hotline, 1800RESPECT.
CAPA was particularly scathing of this year’s budget, releasing a statement that “sustained cuts to research will drag down the Australian economy in future, as we forgo the high return-on-investment for research expenditure.”
The following selection of responses can be found on Campus Morning Mail:
“The government has missed a prime opportunity to reverse its previous $2.1 billion freeze on student places and $328 million cuts to university research,” announced Universities Australia CEO Catriona Jackson on April 2.
Conor King from Innovative Research Universities described it as “the quietest budget for some years.” On the plus side, at least there were no new cuts, he said.
Regional Universities Network was happy with the extra funding. “We recognise the government’s commitment to encourage more student places, including international students to study at regional university campuses,” RUN chair and Federation U VC Helen Bartlett said.
Academy of Science president John Shine was pleased with new targeted initiatives but added, “It is counterintuitive to seek to produce a surplus by cutting the knowledge economy.”