THE University of Newcastle’s plans for a new inner-city campus are under a cloud after a $1billion freeze on federal higher education funding.
The $100 million inner-city proposal had already lost its major lecture theatre because of the dramatic impact of online learning but its very future now rests with a government desperately trying to balance its books.
Coincidentally, news of the funding dilemma came as Newcastle university researchers were awarded more than $12 million in National Health and Medical Research Council grants yesterday.
A team led by Associate Professor Billie Bonevski won two grants totalling $1.54 million to work on smoking treatments while four academics including alcohol campaigner Associate Professor Kypros Kypri were awarded fellowships of $300,000 or more.
Confirmation of the university funding threat came at a Senate estimates hearing this week, when Tertiary Education Minister Chris Evans said $1.8 billion in projects were competing for $500 million in infrastructure funding that was on hold until a Treasury mid-year financial statement.
Earlier this week, vice-chancellor Caroline McMillen said the university realised the pressure on the federal budget but it needed to be able to plan with certainty and was hoping the government would announce a decision before the end of the year.
Federal Newcastle MP Sharon Grierson said she was promoting the university’s case and downplayed the significance of Senator Evans’s statements.
But Paterson MP Bob Baldwin said the funding announcement had been due in July and it now looked as though the university would miss out.
Mr Baldwin said Newcastle City Council was sick of waiting and had drawn up contingency plans for land earmarked for the university.
He said other grant programs affecting the Hunter had been delayed.
‘‘What projects they have are being pushed back so they can keep cooking the books to give an artificial surplus before they go to an election in a flurry of spending,’’ Mr Baldwin said.
Professor McMillen said the university had developed a strategy based on moving various arts and law subjects into town.
The delay meant the university was approaching ‘‘a collision between our strategy and the ability to fund that strategy and we would really be hoping to know the outcome [of the funding application] before the end of this year’’.
The inner-city proposal was begun under former vice-chancellor Nicholas Saunders and was widely lauded as something that would help rejuvenate a flagging Newcastle CBD.
But Professor McMillen said education, not urban renewal, had to be the major consideration in any inner-city spending.
‘‘You don’t make changes in campuses around issues that are not related to your core business,’’ Professor McMillen said.
She said rapid changes in internet-based learning, including the so-called ‘‘Massive Online Open Courses’’ or MOOCs, were revolutionising higher education.
The federal government had made it clear it was not spending money on big new lecture theatres and the university had recognised this in its plans for the city campus.