Places in high-cost university courses including nursing may be on the chopping block following a Federal government funding freeze.
Places in high-cost university courses including nursing may be on the chopping block following a Federal government funding freeze. Supplied

Uni freeze could leave Rocky on life support

REGIONAL universities may be forced to offer fewer positions in expensive but important health courses following an 11th-hour funding freeze.

The Federal Government has frozen university funding at 2017 levels for the next two years. From 2020 funding will be linked to population growth and performance targets.

Universities have warned the freeze will prevent them increasing student intake or expanding their operations.

It comes as experts have called for more health professionals to be trained at regional universities to reduce the medical shortage outside capital cities.

A Regional Australia Institute report found in 2011, 22 per cent of small towns did not have access to a nurse. That number is 42 per cent in remote and very remote towns.

Just 6 per cent of small towns had access to a psychologist and just 5 per cent had access to a dentist.


Regional Universities Network chair and University of Sunshine Coast vice chancellor Greg Hill said universities may be forced to offer more positions in high-fee but cheap to run courses such as law instead of low-fee but expensive to run courses such as nursing.

"There are going to be some side effects. If you're looking to balance your books you are going to look more favourably on law than nursing," he said.

Professor Hill said universities may also decide to abandon expensive courses at smaller campuses, giving fewer options to residents in those areas.

"Economies of scale mean that it is more affordable to offer an expensive course in a bigger area where there will be more students.

"If it's not economical to teach these courses on, for example, the Fraser Coast, then some might be tempted to say, 'Well, move those positions to the Sunshine Coast or Brisbane'.

"But for many students in regional areas they don't have the luxury of moving. So, they will drop out."

Last month, Rural Health Minister Bridget McKenzie said training health professionals in regional areas was key to keeping them there.

"Rural communities face specific health challenges and deserve localised and tailored programs to ensure they receive the same level of care as the rest of the country.

"Part of addressing this challenge is to support more health professionals to undertake the majority of their training and ultimately their careers in the bush."

Central Queensland University vice-chancellor Scott Bowman said people who trained in regional areas were more likely to live and work in them.

"Regional Australia needs more degree qualified people and highly skilled professionals to drive growth and fill critical regional skills shortages, in recent years, regional universities have worked extremely hard to increase participation rates and equity, and results were beginning to be realised. It is also extremely concerning as we already have experts warning that this will create skills shortages in critical areas of regional Australia," he said.

"CQUniversity has been unashamedly gung-ho about pursuing growth over recent years - we believe in increasing higher education opportunities to all our regions, and reducing the shocking disparity in university participation between metropolitan and regional students."

These cuts will make it very difficult, if not impossible, to progress with these plans."

Queensland Nurses and Midwives' Union acting secretary Sandra Eales said the change could force regional nursing students to move to capital cities.

"Regional students in Yeppoon deserve the same opportunities as those in Sydney's Point Piper, where Malcolm Turnbull lives,'' she said. 

"I believe segregating students' access to education depending on where they live is grounds for serious debate and reversal of this decision.''

Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham said decisions on how many positions were offered in certain courses was a decision for individual universities.

"Before the demand-driven system, universities regularly enrolled more students than they received government funding for but still saw millions of dollars flow into their coffers from those students through HELP debts. I expect we'll see the same enrolment behaviour," he said.

"Per-student funding from federal taxpayers is at record levels in real terms, well above levels in previous years when all universities were running surpluses."

Shadow education minister Tanya Plibersek said the freeze would impact regional students the most.

"This is a cruel blow to the thousands of Year 12 graduates who studied so hard to get into uni," she said.

"Mr Turnbull's $2.2 billion of cuts effectively puts a cap on the number of uni places - taking us back to the bad old days of John Howard." -NewsRegional