By Nicole Parodi
A 90-second animation film, Keep It Clever, on television and social media sends a warning message that Australia will be left behind without ongoing public support and investment in universities. The Keep It Clever campaign was launched nationwide in April by Universities Australia in hopes of creating a national conversation on the role of university education and research.
Apart from the short animation, the Keep It Clever campaign has been extended to include a new website, Facebook petition app, digital page takeovers and digital banners.
The campaign emphasises that global competition is growing with emerging economies like China, India and Brazil primarily focusing on tertiary education and research while Australian universities risk being left behind.
“Countries around the world are heavily investing in their universities and research programs, and we need to make sure that the Australian systems are not left behind,” Belinda Robinson, Universities Australia’s chief executive, told the ABC on the day the campaign was launched.
The campaign points to the latest Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) figures that show Australia’s public investment in higher education as a percentage of GDP thus ranking Australia 25th out of 30 advanced economies.
“Given that Australian students have to pay for their education, unlike in some Scandinavian countries and Germany, we are already behind in terms of competitiveness with many overseas universities,” says Jennifer Hird, a law student from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS).
“For example, people from lower socio-economic backgrounds are deterred from entering university due to associated expenses. If more students were encouraged to attend university and admin fees are not increased, then Australian universities would become more competitive just by the sheer number of students undertaking tertiary education,” she says.
University graduates are worth $188 billion to the economy and universities employ over 110,000 staff and directly contribute over $23 billion to Australia’s GDP, according to the campaign’s website which is run by Universities Australia.
The Keep It Clever campaign claims a third of jobs will require a university degree in the coming years and by 2025, it is estimated there will be a shortfall of 280,000 people with the high-level qualifications needed by various industries and the economy.
“As it stands, Australia already has a skills shortage in areas such as engineering and science. We don’t want even more shortages due to students being discouraged from undertaking study because of the cost of it and lack of services cause by reduced government funding,” says Jenna Thompson, a science student from the University of New South Wales.
The university sector continues to face $2.3 billion in funding cuts that have yet been legislated in Federal Parliament. In April last year, the then Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced $2.3 billion in funding cuts to help fund the Gonski school reforms.
The Liberal Federal Government has vowed to continue with the funding cuts to tertiary education with Christopher Pyne, the Federal Education Minister, introducing the legislation last November to Parliament, saying the government had no choice but to proceed with the cuts due to the “fiscal mess” that the previous Labor government had left behind.
For the students who are concerned about how proposed funding cuts will affect them, the matter of which side of politics is to blame is not a major issue.
“We don’t want our universities to be under-funded and have to cut contact hours with students. I have heard of certain nursing lectures being cut from one hour to 30 minutes due to funding. What good is a 30-minute lecture? You wouldn’t learn anything. And nursing is crucial in a functioning first world country,” says Natalie Harper, a business student at Sydney University.
Catarina Baker, who is studying a Bachelor of Arts at the University of New South Wales, adds, “Cuts to university funding will have a negative impact on Australia universities and result in us becoming less competitive with overseas universities.
“These cuts will mean that students have fewer services to assist them in their study and greater administrative fees. Students already struggle to pay for textbooks, laptops, and other resources each year, adding less free services will result in more expenses, which some students just cannot afford,” she says.