AUSTRALIA was the only developed country to cut public spending on tertiary education in the decade to 2004, according to a new world comparison.
The funding reduction — down 4 per cent compared with an average OECD rise of 49 per cent — resulted in private spending on higher education, including students' tuition fees, surpass government funding.
By 2004 the Government paid 47.2 per cent of university revenue in Australia, compared with an OECD average of 75.4 per cent.
The OECD found private spending soared mainly due to students leaving university with a greater debt after the Federal Government lifted maximum HECS fees in 1997.
Only the US, Japan and Korea charged students more for a public university degree. Australians paid an average $US3855 a year for university study. Conversely, one in three members of the OECD, all of them European countries, offer students free university tuition.
The OECD report "Education at a Glance", released last night, said charging students fees had not reduced university access for the less advantaged. It found Australia led the developed world for access to a degree.
Education Minister Julie Bishop said the OECD analysis was flawed because it counted HECS and government full-fee loans as money paid by students, and did not include the majority of vocational and technical education funding.
It also did not include funding increases since 2004, including the $6 billion Higher Education Endowment Fund — part of $7.9 billion provided this year.
A Government report released yesterday showed Australian universities had a $15.5 billion revenue boom last year, up $1.6 billion — or 11 per cent — from 2005.
"This result shows that our universities are in a healthy financial position, which places them on a sustainable footing for the foreseeable future," Ms Bishop said.
The report groups Australia with the US, Britain, New Zealand and the Netherlands as countries that charge high university fees but offers most students a public loan or scholarship. About 95 per cent of Australian university students have a subsidised place.
Across all levels of education, the OECD report found Australia devoted a lower proportion of GDP than the developed world average, though the proportion increased under the Howard Government, up from 5.5 per cent in 1995 to 5.9 per cent in 2004.
Most of this growth was from private sources. About 27 per cent of total education funding was private, more than twice the OECD average of 13 per cent.
The report also found:
■Australia had the lowest unemployment rate for tertiary educated 25 to 29-year-olds in the developed world.
■Australian universities had the world's highest proportion of overseas students.
■Australian school students aged seven to 15 spent more time in the classroom than all countries except the Netherlands and Italy.
Opposition Education spokesman Stephen Smith said the OECD report showed 11 years of underinvestment and neglect under the Coalition.
Mr Smith said Labor was committed to increase funding at every level, but would not give details.
Adam Morton and Farrah Tomazin
September 19, 2007