Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Australian 2022/23 Budget Lacks Funding for More Flexible Telecommunications and Education Options

The 2022/23 Australian Federal Budget Papers are available online. Here are some items of interest on information technology and higher education. 

IT Items

The big ticket items for IT are $2.4B for NBN Co fibre to 1.5 million premises, and $757.7M for rural mobile and broadband. What this lacks is a strategy to incorporate new options, such as low earth orbit satellite access to small fixed locations, and direct to mobile phones. Also lacking is a way to encourage, or  require telcos to share mobile infrastructure in regional and remote areas, for more coverage, at lower cost.

Higher Education

The big ticket items for education are $921.7M for 480,000 fee‑free vocational education and training (VET) students, and $485.5M for 20,000 extra university places. The university funds will be targeted at First Nations, first in family, rural and remote students to do teaching, nursing, engineering, and other priority courses. The VET places will target jobs and regions in need, but there is no mention of priority for disadvantaged groups, as there is for the university places. That is unfortunate as VET is a good first step to higher education. 

One small program of interest is the $15.4M Startup Year, with 2,000 loans for recent graduates, postgraduate and final year undergraduate students per year. The students will do a one‑year accelerator program at a university.

I could find no mention of micro-credentials, or other more flexible forms of education in the budget. This lack of flexibility will continue to be a barrier for students from disadvantaged groups. It is all very well to be offered a place in a university, but if this is 1,000 km from home, because the university has cancelled the online study option introduced during COVID-19, then many rural and remote students will have difficulty attending. This also applies to those who cannot leave their job, children, aged parents, or cultural commitments, to study full time for years, to get a qualification. We need policies, and incentives, which see universities introducing the sort of flexibility, for short, part time, online courses, already in place in the VET sector.

Also there does not appear to be any funding to support Australia's international education industry, which faces threats from technological change, and geopolitical tensions. In 2016 I warned Australian universities to be ready to teach online, in case geopolitical tensions kept international students outside Australia. That didn't happen, but COVID-19 showed what could still happen to Australian education, if there is a military confrontation in our part of the world, with no warning, which stops students attending Australian campuses.

From Budget Paper No. 2, Part 2: Payment Measures:

Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts

Australian Communications and Media Authority – spectrum management

The Government will provide $27.7 million over 5 years from 2022–23 (including $15.3 million in capital funding) for the Australian Communications and Media Authority to deliver a new spectrum management system and auction capability for spectrum licences.

Better Connectivity Plan for Regional and Rural Australia

The Government will provide $757.7 million over 5 years from 2022–23 to improve mobile and broadband connectivity and resilience in rural and regional Australia,.including:

  • $400.0 million over 5 years from 2022–23 to support the roll out of mobile base stations to improve highway and underserviced community mobile coverage, and initiatives to improve the resilience of communications services to support the roll out of base stations to improve highway and underserviced community mobile coverage

  • $200.0 million over 5 years from 2022–23 for two additional rounds of the Regional Connectivity Program to fund the delivery of telecommunications infrastructure to improve digital connectivity in regional, rural and remote Australia

  • $40.0 million over 3 years from 2022–23 for an improving mobile coverage round of the Mobile Black Spot Program to implement commitments for new mobile infrastructure to improve mobile coverage and reception quality across Australia

  • $39.1 million over 5 years from 2022–23 for two additional rounds of the Peri‑Urban Mobile Program to improve mobile reception in peri‑urban areas that are prone to natural disasters

  • $30.0 million over 5 years from 2022–23 for the On Farm Connectivity Program to support farmers and agricultural businesses to purchase and install on farm connectivity equipment

  • $20.0 million over 5 years from 2022–23 to conduct an independent audit of mobile coverage to better identify black spots and guide investment priorities

  • $6.0 million over 3 years from 2023–24 for the Regional Tech Hub platform to provide free and independent advice on telecommunications connectivity and services in regional and rural Australia

  • $2.5 million over 5 years from 2022 23 to establish a First Nations Digital Advisory Group to lead consultation with First Nations people on the design and delivery of digital inclusion initiatives.

This measure will redirect funding from the 2019–20 Budget measure titled Stronger Regional Connectivity Package, 2021–22 MYEFO measure titled Digital Economy Strategy – additional funding and 2022–23 March Budget measure titled Government Response to the 2021 Regional Telecommunications Review.

Improving the NBN

The Government will provide an equity investment of $2.4 billion to NBN Co over 4 years from 2022–23 to upgrade the National Broadband Network (NBN) to deliver fibre‑ready access to a further 1.5 million premises by late 2025.

The additional investment will support nearly 90 per cent of Australia’s fixed line footprint to have access to world class gigabit speeds by late 2025.

The Government will also provide $4.7 million over 3 years from 2022–23 to support the delivery of free broadband for up to 30,000 unconnected families with school aged students during the 2023 calendar year.

Post Secondary Education

Outcomes of the Jobs and Skills Summit
  • $8.9 million over 3 years from 2023–24 to establish a Productivity, Education and Training Fund to support employer and union representatives to improve safety, fairness and productivity in workplaces

Startup Year – establishment

The Government will provide $15.4 million over 4 years from 2022–23 (and $2.8 million per year ongoing) to establish the Startup Year program to deliver income contingent Higher Education Loan Program loans to up to 2,000 recent graduates, postgraduate and final year undergraduate students per year. The Startup Year will support students’ participation in a one‑year, business‑focused accelerator program at an Australian higher education provider, which will encourage innovation and support Australia’s startup community.

Strengthening Australia’s Higher Education Sector

The Government will provide $491.8 million over 4 years from 2022–23 (and $570.1 million over 11 years) to boost higher education and strengthen Australia’s university system. Funding includes:

  • $485.5 million over 4 years from 2022–23 (and $563.8 million over 11 years) for 20,000 additional Commonwealth supported places at universities and other higher education providers commencing in 2023 and 2024. These places are dedicated to students under‑represented in higher education, including First Nations peoples, those who are the first in their family to study at university, and students from rural and remote Australia. The places are for courses in areas of skills shortage, including teaching, nursing and engineering

  • $3.6 million in 2022–23 to the Department of Education to develop a business case for a new university and schools payment system, to manage the timely and accurate administration of entitlements

  • $2.7 million over two years from 2022–23 to deliver an Australian Universities Accord, a review of Australia’s higher education system by a panel of eminent Australians delivering recommendations to drive accessibility, affordability, quality, certainty, sustainability and prosperity.

The Government will also achieve savings of $144.1 million over 4 years from 2022–23 (and $484.9 million over 11 years) by ending the 10 per cent discount for students who elect to pay their student contributions upfront rather than defer payment through the Higher Education Contribution Scheme – Higher Education Loan Program.

Teacher Shortages

The Government will provide $310.4 million over 9 years from 2022–23 (and $7.9 million per year ongoing) to attract and retain high‑quality teachers and improve student outcomes. Funding includes:

  • $160.1 million over 8 years from 2023–24 for up to 5,000 bursaries of $10,000 per year to students, with an ATAR of 80 or above, who undertake a teaching degree. Bursaries will be available to undergraduate and postgraduate students with an additional $2,000 made available for students who complete their final year placement in a regional area

  • $78.8 million over 5 years from 2022–23 to expand the High Achieving Teachers program to support an additional 1,500 high achieving professionals to transition into teaching through employment‑based pathways

  • $60.6 million over 9 years from 2022–23 (and $7.1 million per year ongoing) to implement the Quality Initial Teacher Education Review’s recommendations, including the expansion and development of new micro‑credentials courses in classroom management and phonics

  • $10.9 million over 9 years from 2022–23 (and $0.8 million per year ongoing) to the Department of Education for administrative costs associated with this measure.

Vocational Education – fee‑free TAFE and TAFE Technology Fund

The Government will provide $921.7 million over 5 years from 2022–23 to strengthen Australia’s Vocational Education and Training system and address skills shortages. Funding includes:

  • $871.7 million over 5 years from 2022–23 to provide 480,000 fee‑free Technical and Further Education (TAFE) and vocational education places in industries and regions with skills shortages

  • $50.0 million over two years from 2022–23 to establish a TAFE Technology Fund to modernise IT infrastructure, workshops, laboratories, telehealth simulators, and other facilities at TAFEs across Australia.

Around 180,000 fee‑free TAFE and vocational education places will be delivered in 2023 in areas of highest skills need as part of a one‑year National Skills Agreement with the states and territories commencing 1 January 2023, which was an outcome of the Jobs and Skills Summit.

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