Australian Labor plans loan extensions for student entrepreneurs

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Australia’s opposition leader has flagged a new scheme to boost the commercialisation of university research, stealing a march on government reform plans in this area.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese said that if his party won government, it would establish a “Start Up Year” programme to help students and graduates turn their ideas into commercial products and businesses.

The scheme, announced during Mr Albanese’s budget reply speech, would give some 2,000 graduates access to an extra year of student loans as they developed their ideas using university facilities and supported by academic mentors.

Mr Albanese said that the loans would be offered to “students and new graduates with ventures attached to a tertiary institution or designated private accelerator” to “help drive innovation and increase links between universities and entrepreneurs”.

The Australian Technology Network of universities backed the idea, saying that it would help protect students’ businesses being derailed by upfront costs. “All Australians, regardless of background or circumstance, should have the opportunity to develop their entrepreneurial skills and business acumen as part of their university experience,” said executive director Luke Sheehy.

But universities attracted little attention in the budget reply speech after being almost completely overlooked in the 11 May budget, which marked a shift in political favour away from higher education and towards the long-neglected vocational education and training (VET) sector.

VET was the target of several major budget allocations – notably a A$500 million (£275 million) extension of the JobTrainer scheme, which provides fee-free courses for young and unemployed people, and an extra A$2.7 billion for apprentice wage subsidies.

The commercial research and development sector also benefited from measures such as a A$200 million “patent box” tax concession scheme, which slashes the tax on earnings from homegrown medical and biotech innovations.

Government critics have highlighted an almost 10 per cent decline in government spending on higher education, after the budget outlook paper showed the government’s higher education expenses decreasing by 8 per cent next financial year and 9 per cent by 2024-25.

This largely reflects a resetting of government spending, which was inflated last year by a one-off A$1 billion boost to research funding, although the Job-ready Graduates (JRG) reforms are also contributing to the decline.

Portfolio budget statements reveal a more nuanced picture, with some spending streams falling and others rising. JRG tipped the overall balance of course funding away from government subsidies, paid through the Commonwealth Grant Scheme (CSG), and towards student contributions covered by the Higher Education Loan Programme.

Accordingly, budget expenditure estimates show subsidies going down and student contributions going up. CSG funding is projected to decline from more than A$7.5 billion this year to less than A$7.2 billion in 2024-25, rebounding to A$7.3 billion in 2024-25 as school leaver numbers climb.

But spending on student loans is expected to soar from less than A$1.1 billion this year to almost A$1.8 billion next year and nearly A$2.1 billion in 2024-25.

Government research funding will tumble from almost A$3 billion this year to around A$2 billion annually for the next four years, offset only slightly by rising spending on collaborative research infrastructure. Nevertheless, overall spending on the sector through the education department is expected to be almost 2 per cent higher by 2024-25.

However, these extra funds are expected to be dwarfed by losses in international education revenue.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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