Want to study submarines? If not, you’re out of luck: Higher Education in the 2023 Budget

Despite ongoing calls to remove weapons manufacturing from universities, the Government has pledged funding for Commonwealth-supported places to support AUKUS.

The aspects of the 2023 Budget relating to higher education are characterised by a sparse lack of detail. From more Commonwealth-supported university spots supporting AUKUS to increased positions for education students, many of the changes made included substantial vagueness or promises for future reviews — with little detail provided in the meantime.

This uncertainty is indicative of a government that has its eyes on its upcoming Universities Accord. In the meantime, the Job-ready Graduates Package will remain in place and students will be burdened by thousands more dollars in student debt. So, what was in this year’s Budget for students’ education?

New Places for AUKUS

Despite ongoing calls to remove weapons manufacturing from universities, the Government has pledged funding for Commonwealth-supported places to support AUKUS. The funding for this is interestingly placed in the Defence section of the Budget papers, rather than the Education section. The spots are part of an intention to develop the technical and STEM-specific capabilities of the Australian workforce.

$127.3 million over four years has been allocated to support 4000 additional places at universities and other higher education providers to support AUKUS. These places are focussed on STEM and management fields including chemical engineering, chemistry, computer science, electrical engineering, management, mechanical engineering, mathematics, physics, and psychology.

Whilst the joint media release from Jason Clare (Minister for Education), Anne Aly (Minister for Early Childhood Education and Minister for Youth), and Anthony Chisholm (Assistant Minister for Education) markets this as a $128.5 million investment, Honi was told that the difference between this figure and the $127.3 million allocated in the Budget papers is attributable to costs for administration and IT. This means that $1.2 million has been allocated to administration and IT support for 4,000 spaces. 

Eight hundred of these spots are set to be allocated to universities in South Australia over the next four years, as per a previously announced agreement between the Federal Government and the South Australian State Government. The remainder are set to be allocated based on “a competitive process.” There are no indications of how many spots other states are scheduled to receive. When Honi asked about what this competitive process would entail, we were told that it would depend on what tailored criteria was set and that this had not been finalised yet. When asked about what this criteria included, Honi was told that it would be based on which universities had quality programs that met the needs of AUKUS. 

Aside from the AUKUS places, the Government has not included funding for additional university places. A previous additional 20,000 Commonwealth-supported places were announced in the October Budget.

USyd SRC Education Officers Ishbel Dunsmore and Yasmine Johnson told Honi that “The provision of thousands of additional commonwealth supported places [CSPs] for prospective STEM and management students across the Australian university sector affirms our suspicions: that universities are becoming more and more entangled with the Australian military-industrial complex and its imperialist worldview. 

“Students mustn’t delude themselves into thinking of this as an opportunity; this is merely the next phase of the age-old ‘degree factory’ model of the corporate university. 

“The 20,000 jobs and 4,000 CSPs created by the AUKUS agreement will force students to join the Albanese government’s march to war with China, at the same time that these same students are faced with record cost of living and study expenses. The purpose of tertiary education as a vehicle for social good cannot be retained under this new provision.”

Commitment to Changes for International Students

With the Government predicting a return to pre-pandemic numbers of international students in 2024 — a year earlier than predicted in the October Budget — international students will be faced with a return to a fortnightly cap on working hours. Whilst the cap previously existed, it was removed during the pandemic. The Government announced this change earlier in the year. 

The cap includes an expansion from 40 to 48 hours per fortnight. This, in effect, prevents an international student from working more than three eight-hour shifts per week. An exemption for international students working in the aged care sector will remain until the end of the year. With many international students facing ongoing stress in the cost of living crisis, this is likely to further intensify the financial stress experienced by these students.

Another change introduced would see international students granted an extra two years of post-study work opportunity whilst on a student visa. This appears to be an attempt to keep more international students working in Australia as the Government failed to achieve its target for 85% of international students or higher to be employed or enrolled in further study after graduation in the 2022-23 year. Whilst the percentage increased from 72.3% in 2021 to 76.2% in 2022, the lower percentage is attributed to pandemic related disruptions.

Disability Support

The Government has promised an additional investment of $4.3 million per year in the Higher Education Disability Support Program. The funding is targeted at improving engagement and support accessibility, participation and success for impacted students. The funding is aimed at helping universities invest in assistive technologies, training for staff and course modifications.

At this stage, the Government’s position on providing hybrid learning options for students with disabilities is unclear. The main mention of online learning appears to be in the section focused on the operation of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA). In their strategic direction statement, online delivery is described as part of the business models of higher education providers emerging from the pandemic, with TEQSA tasked with supporting innovation whilst maintaining the quality and integrity of Australian higher education. This appears to position online learning as a threat to high-quality higher education, rather than a valuable tool for disabled students.

USyd SRC Disability Officers Khanh Tran and Jack Scanlan told Honi that “While any funding is welcomed, disabled students are still not getting the funding or support they need. Universities can still ignore the Disability Discrimination Act for heritage buildings and many homes, businesses, and buildings need upgrade and new building codes and upgrades are needed for heritage buildings and new buildings.

“Prospective international students can still be deported or barred from higher education because of their disability as the government has yet to commit to raising the medical expenditure threshold for temporary (including student) visas.

“Hybrid learning options are needed for disabled and rural students and students who need flexibility like mothers or are working students.”

Loan Repayments

The Government has assigned $87.8 million over five years to improve the administration of student loans and enhance the security and privacy of related data. This includes support for a new digital solution for administering the VET Student Loans program, an update to the Tertiary Collection of Student Information system and an extension of the VET FEE-HELP student redress measures. 

These seem like positive measures. But the question students are asking is: what is happening to HECS debt? 

Whilst the only focus on student loans in the Budget occurs in the context of administering their repayment, the Government is proceeding with the indexation of HECS-HELP loans at 7.1%. Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi moved a bill in April that would have frozen student debt. A parliamentary committee recommended its rejection, on account of both Labor and Liberal opposition to the bill. The Government will receive an additional $4.5 billion above what is already owed by students after this round of indexation.

USyd SRC President Lia Perkins said that “From the outset, it has been clear that this is an austerity budget that won’t make a difference for students. The cost of living crisis is hitting students hard, and our demands have been very clear — we need a freeze on HECs indexation (and to abolish fees altogether), an increase to youth allowance and JobSeeker, and a rent freeze and public housing.

“It is disappointing to see the government prioritise creating a surplus, cutting taxes on the wealthy and minor relief measures. This budget will worsen the divide between the wealthy few who are making profits while everyone else struggles to get by.”

Supporting Indigenous Students

Despite being mentioned in the goals of various education areas of the budget, the Government announced no new measures for First Nations students in Higher Education, instead announcing funding for school attendance measures and remote learning initiatives. 

USyd First Nations Officer Ben McGrory said that “As First Nations Officer I welcome the Budget handed down by the ALP Government. The budget has allocated 1.9 billion towards First Australians. Baseline increases to Abstudy and Rent Assistance will give mob more money to survive. The hall marks include 194 million to tackle family and domestic violence towards our Women. 111.7 million going towards building new housing in the NT. Abolishment of the Community Development Program and introduction of Indigenous tailored employment solutions. These a [sic] few measures which will assist mob in overcoming poverty entrenched by Covid-19.”

Supporting Education & Teaching

Amidst an ongoing teacher shortage, the Government has promised an additional 4000 university places for education, with 1,972 specifically assigned for primary and secondary teachers. The Government has also allocated funding for 5000 scholarships and the High Achieving Teachers program, promising “to attract more high-quality candidates into teaching.”

Further Tertiary Study Options

The Government has also pledged funding for 300,000 fee-free TAFE and vocational education places from 2024. The allocation for this funding is subject to negotiation with the states.

The Government has promised the negotiation of a 5-year National Skills Agreement with the states and territories. The Agreement, which would start from 1 January 2024, is pitched as a mechanism to ensure the VET sector is responsive to emerging industries. It is tasked with setting strategic priorities for the VET system, supporting gender equality and closing the gap for Indigenous Australians. The Federal Government is committing to $550 million for a 12-Month Skills Agreement, with $493 million to be matched by the states. This funding is assigned for fee-free TAFE places.

A broader focus on STEM opportunities is emphasised in the Budget with other programs like the Women in STEM Cadetships and Advanced Apprenticeships program extended by two years.

Overall Costs

The Budget estimates an increase of $579 million in expenses for student assistance. This increase is attributed to changes from the Increase to Budget measure “Increase to Working Age Payments”, an expected increase in the amount of students accessing the Student Payment program due to an anticipated increase in unemployment and the rising cost of the Higher Education Loan Program (HELP) loans. The “Increase to Working Age Payments” measure increases the base rate of payments (including Youth Allowance, Austudy, ABSTUDY, Disability Support Pension (Youth)) by only $40 a fortnight from 20 September 2023.

An increase to the expenses related to HELP loans attributes the increase in part to a combination of the 20,000 additional Commonwealth supported places promised in the October Budget and the Job-ready Graduates package. The Budget papers did not include any other references to the Job-ready Graduates package, or its impact on students.

The Budget makes reference to the Australian Universities Accord, outlining that it will be producing “recommendations and performance targets that will improve the quality, accessibility, affordability and sustainability of higher education to achieve long-term security and prosperity for the sector and the nation.” Like many other aspects of the education changes in the budget, the Government provides little detail on how these changes would occur.  


Ultimately, there is very little support offered for students in this year’s budget. The support that is given is focussed on TAFE and VET places, with the main focus in universities focussed on more Commonwealth supported places to aid AUKUS. Amidst rising HELP loans and a cost of living crisis, the Federal Government is leaving students behind.