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Australia facing undergraduate crisis

Editorial
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Evidence from the UK suggests the number of undergraduates entering Australian universities could decline sharply if proposed federal funding cuts go ahead, with mature and part-time students particularly affected.

Australian government budget proposals include cuts to their support for university courses by an average of 20 per cent. Disciplines such as engineering and the sciences may face bigger cuts. There are also plans to deregulate the amount Australian universities can charge students for tuition fees.

As a result, some estimates suggest the total cost of a four-year engineering degree could increase from about $103,000 to over $160,000, with students facing a personal bill of $117,650 – compared to around $34,000 currently.

However, analysis from the Independent Commission on Fees in England – where universities were granted similar powers to raise tuition fees in 2012/2013 to offset funding cuts – showed a 40 per cent drop in the number of part-time undergraduate students; a 14 per cent decline in mature students (20 years and older); and a four per cent decline in 18 and 19 year old students entering university.

The Commission’s analysis also found that men were most likely to be affected by the increase in tuition fees.

The Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) – the international professional organisation for chemical and process engineers, which accredits courses at ten universities in Australia – is warning of the potential damage facing the country’s universities as a result of infrastructure and higher education budget cuts.

IChemE’s president, distinguished energy expert Professor Geoffrey Maitland, said “Asian universities are advancing rapidly in their capabilities and standards of engineering education, responding to an impressive hunger for learning and qualifications among young people – and it’s good to see governments from the Middle East to South East Asia investing in higher education.

“Countries like Australia and those in Western Europe have first rate university systems but if they are not to fall behind, they should be building on their strengths and investing more, not less, in higher education. The risk of losing ground is real and urgent, and it’s time government recognised the danger.”

In addition to university funding cuts, organisations including CSIRO, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, the Australian Research Council, the Defence Science and Technology Organisation, the Co-operative Research Centres are facing budget cuts of around $420 million.

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