As part of the budget savings, the Government has announced a cut and reallocation of funding to the Higher Education Participation Programme (HEPP). Over the next four years this represents a cut of $100 million and reallocation of $52.3 million. Total efficiencies amount to a 21.75 reduction in current levels of funding.

The reallocated funding taken from HEPP will be directed to other education initiatives: including $12 million for the implementation of the National Strategy for International Education; and $40 million to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AITSIS).

An initiative begun by the previous Labor government, HEPP was designed to direct funding at programs which seek to improve participation in higher education by under-represented and disadvantaged people.

Existing categories include Indigenous Australians, people with a disability, and those from low socioeconomic, Non-English speaking or regional and remote backgrounds. There has also been some focus on women studying in non-traditional areas of study like engineering.

An announcement by the Government in their education discussion paper of an evaluation of the outcomes and value of HEPP raises the possibility of further changes to the existing funding model.

These funding changes come on the back of a review announced in 2015 by then education minister Christopher Pyne into the ongoing relevance of the categories of disadvantage used by universities and the government. Although a spokesman for Minister Pyne at the time stated this was not a review into funding, these results are presumably relevant to the Government’s evaluation of future funding allocations.

The suggestion of education specialist Andrew Norton from the Grattan Institute in comments to the Higher Education section of The Australian was that such categories should be reduced to just three: with support directed only to indigenous, low socio-economic and disabled students. The others he suggested were ‘merely a little bit interesting’.

The priorities of the current Government as indicated in the discussion paper, however, suggest that students from regional and rural Australia would remain a priority given that their participation in higher education is in relative decline. Indigenous students are also likely to remain a priority, with Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion announcing the introduction of the Indigenous Student Success in Higher Education measure.

Regardless of future policy changes, the significant cuts outlined in the budget are likely to have real implications for existing equity programs and the work they do in promoting participation my marginalized groups. University equity initiatives funded by HEPP have already been hit by reductions in funding cuts by the Abbott Government which forced many universities to discontinue successful outreach programmes.

With funding reduced, administrators at the Australian National University merged their Student Equity unit with Disability services to form a new division called Access and Inclusion. The merger led to the loss of several positions and the winding down of established outreach programs like the regional schools Community Ambassador scheme.

The cuts outlined in this budget are likely to put further pressure on universities in their continued facilitation of these equity programs. Uncertainty created by diminishing funding, and the pending evaluation of HEPP mean that a longer term outlook for higher education equity programs is hard to reach. Universities and other stakeholders will need to make strong cases if the existing funding model is to not be reduced further.

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