Abbott government cuts university support; funds priests’ training
Taxpayers would subsidise the training of priests and other religious workers at private colleges for the first time under the Abbott government’s proposed higher education reforms.
As well as deregulating university fees and cutting university funding by 20 per cent, the government’s proposed higher education package extends federal funding to students at private universities, TAFES and associate degree programs.
Religious teaching, training and vocational institutes would be eligible for a share of $820 million in new Commonwealth funding over three years.
Labor and the Greens attacked the policy, saying it breaches the separation of Church and State. Earlier this year the government controversially announced it would provide $244 million for a new school chaplaincy scheme but would remove the option for schools to hire secular welfare workers.
In correspondence with voters, Family First Senator Bob Day has singled out funding for faith-based training institutes to explain his support for the government’s reforms.
Eleven theological colleges are currently accredited by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) to provide courses designed to prepare students to enter religious ministries.
Institutes such as the Sydney College of Divinity, Brisbane’s Christian Heritage College and the Perth Bible College, which currently charge students full fees, would be eligible for an estimated $4214 funding a year each student under the reforms.
The John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne, which offers course units including “Theology and Practice of Natural Family Planning” and “Marriage in the Catholic Tradition”, would also be eligible for federal support.
The institute says on its website its mission is “promote marriage and the family for the good of the whole Church and the wider community”.
The Anglican Diocese of Melbourne requires all trainee priests to receive theological training at Ridley College or the Trinity College Theological School, both of which would likely be eligible to offer Commonwealth Supported Places under the government’s changes.
Labor higher education spokesman Kim Carr said: “This raises serious questions about relationship between Church and State. The Church has traditionally funded the training of its own personnel.”
Mr Carr said there was a difference between federal funding for theoretically-focused religious studies courses and courses designed to prepare graduates for the priesthood.
Greens higher education spokeswoman Lee Rhiannon said: “Mr Pyne has gone one step further than robbing Peter to pay Paul – he is attempting to rob Australia’s public and secular university system to pay private, religious colleges.
“Courses that Mr Pyne wants to extend funding to include those teaching prescriptive Christian ideology on sexuality and marriage – is this really the best use of the higher education budget?”
On its core values page on its website the Perth Bible College says, “We believe in the urgent need to reach our broken world with the gospel of Jesus Christ and to train men and women to be effective servants for God.”
A spokesman for Education Minister Christopher Pyne said courses offered by private colleges would have to be approved by the independent regulator to gain access to federal funding.
“Consistent with current practice, the government will not distinguish between faith‑based and secular higher education institutions for registration and funding purposes,” the spokesman said.
Family First Senator Bob Day said, in a letter to a member of the general public, that it is unfair that public universities receive federal funding but religious colleges and other private providers do not.
“The Government’s proposals … reduce the subsidies given to universities, while for the first time addressing inequity by providing significant subsidies for non-universities (but still less than universities),” he wrote. “Some of these non-universities that will receive funding for the first time – if this Bill passes – are faith-based training, teaching, theological and vocational institutions.”
University of Divinity Vice-Chancellor Peter Sherlock declined to comment, but in a recent Senate submission the private university said federal funding would bring down course fees for its students.
The government’s reforms were voted down by the Senate this week but will return to Parliament, with some amendments, next year.
Figures released on Thursday by the Universities Admissions Centre showed a slight increase in year 12 applications on last year despite claims of vastly increased fees under a deregulated system.