Earlier this year, Kevin Rudd – leader of the Australian Labor Party – promised the country an education revolution if they would be voted into power (elections are later this year). Today, Peter Costello – treasurer of the current government – has tried to outdo Rudd in the new budget that was presented today. It’s already been dubbed the education budget.

One of the most innovative items is the creation of a Higher Education Endowment Fund. The government shall set up the fund and put in an amount of 5 billion Australian dollars (4 billion US; 3 billion Euros (!)). The money is meant to build world class universities for Australia, according to Education Minister Julie Bishop:

“The fund is expected to provide a dividend of around $900 million over three years from 2008/09. The dividend will be distributed to universities by the Minister for Education, Science and Training taking into account the advice of an independent HEEF board. This investment will promote excellence, quality and specialisation in Australian universities for years to come, helping our institutions to become truly world class.”

In addition to the HEEF, the Federal Government has also unveiled a $3.5 billion package to be spent over four years in higher education, vocational training and schools. The Australian Vice Chancellors’ Committee (AVCC) by word of Professor Sutton – its president – has already welcomed the budget:

“The Australian Government through this Budget has shown its commitment to investing in Australia’s universities today, to ensure we continue to produce high quality, work ready graduates and researchers into the future. This Budget delivers on the key areas that the AVCC has been lobbying for.”

Yes, I think it is good news for higher education in Australia. Maybe not so good for Labor. It will be interesting to follow this new instrument and see how it develops. Will the fund grow further by further donations from private parties and governments? After all, 5 billion for all of Australia’s 41 universities becomes rather bleak when compared to US Universities. In the US, 12 endowment funds of individual (private) universities already exceed this amount, with Harvard topping the list with almost 29 billion. It will be especially interesting to see whether the availability of the fund will be an excuse for future budget cuts.

The treasurer has at least tried to assure the Australians that only the dividend will be used and that the fund itself will not be touched, not even by Labor. Mr Costello – referring to Labor’s plan to use Australia’s ‘Future Fund‘ to fund a national high-speed broadband network – explained it like this:

“Let me make this clear – once the paw goes into the honey pot, it can pull all of the honey out. I put the honey in there – and I’m locking the honey against the paw.”

Later this year, Australian voters will decide whether to leave Mr Costello with the key to the pot, or whether to let the bears in.

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