Federal Budget cuts deep

Education hit hard as schools lose billions

Maurie Mulheron

"And I want to give people this absolute assurance: no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no changes to pensions, and no changes to the GST." (Tony Abbott, ABC TV, Insiders September 1, 2013)

The May Federal Budget has signalled that the Abbott Government intends to under-fund schools by at least two-thirds of what was promised in the National Education Reform Agreement reached between the NSW and Federal governments by cutting the six-year program by two years. For NSW schools, this represents a $2.1 billion funding cut. The vocational and training (VET) sector has also been hit hard.

Despite assurances given to the Australian public before the last election, the Abbott Government had already announced in December 2013 cuts of $450 million for after-school care and a $987 million cut in funding for trade training facilities in schools.

The real losers in the Federal Budget are our students.

Cuts include $1.81 billion in additional funding for public schools, which educate a disproportionate number of students from low-income families, students from rural and remote NSW, students with disability, Aboriginal students and students from non-English speaking backgrounds.

The Gonski funding model was designed to close the gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged. This Federal Budget shows that the Abbott Government has abandoned the Gonski principle of need-based, targeted funding. Instead, it is a budget that will entrench disadvantage and deny thousands of students the education they need to reach their potential.

As was revealed in the original Gonski review, if the funding model is not implemented up to one in five NSW schools will not meet even minimum basic resource standards.

Already in NSW public schools the additional Gonski funds are making a difference providing extra support to students in targeted, strategic programs. If Abbott is allowed to get away with the cuts there will be no long-term certainty for these programs.

The Gonski agreement was to transition all schools to a minimum school resource standard. The final fifth and sixth years was where the bulk - more than two-thirds - of the federal funding for NSW schools was to be delivered.

On May 14, NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli said the State Government intended to honour its obligations under the Gonski agreement and called on the Commonwealth Government to do the same.

"The Gonski Agreement gave NSW the ability to strengthen and accelerate vital reforms to education in NSW," he said.

"The $1.76 billion NSW Government commitment [over six years] will allow that work to continue but the loss of Commonwealth funding will significantly restrict our capacity to continue to improve the quality of the education provided to students."

Mr Piccoli said he would meet with all school sectors to plan a strategy to ensure the Commonwealth Government met its commitments.

The VET area has been hit hard by the Federal Budget with the cost of gaining skills shifted from the government to young Australians and their parents and carers.

The Tools For Your Trade program, worth $914.6 million over four years, has been cut. Worse, the following programs will be abolished with cuts of more than $1 billion to this vital area:

  • National Workforce Development Fund
  • Workplace English Language and Literacy Program
  • Australian Apprenticeships Access Program
  • Accelerated Australian Apprenticeships Program
  • Australian Apprenticeships Mentoring Program
  • National Partnership Agreement on Training Places for Single
  • Alternative Pathways Program
  • Apprenticeship to Business Owner Program
  • Productive Ageing through Community Education
  • Step Into Skills Program.

These programs were critical in providing basic literacy and numeracy skills, and up-skilling existing workers to meet the needs of the modern workplace. They have been replaced with a Trade Support Loans Program - $439 million over four years - a HECS-style loans scheme of up to $20,000 per apprentice restricted to skills shortage or "in demand" areas.

The loans scheme indicates that the Federal Government has abandoned any commitment to develop the skills of young Australians shifting the burden on the individual and placing them on a debt cycle even before they gain employment.

While a new Industry Skills Fund is worth $476 million over four years, the real impact on VET will be a net loss of at least $1.5 billion.

It is extraordinary that the Prime Minister can talk about long-term investment in Australia's future while at the same time fail to invest in Australia's most precious resource, our young people. The cuts to Gonski and VET show that this government understands the cost of everything but the value of nothing.