Any rev left in Kev's 'education revolution'?

March 28, 2009

Two reviews present the Rudd government with opportunities to readjust the policy settings of post-secondary education and determine its future funding arrangements.

The Review of Australian Higher Education, known as the Bradley Review, was finalised and released in December 2008. Venturous Australia — building strength in innovation — Cutler's innovation review — also handed down its recommendations last year. Together, they carry promises and threats for public education.

They promise a new era of public investment; they also threaten a new market model of funding for teaching. Hanging over the reviews' findings is the economic crisis and there is little doubt "budgetary constraints" will limit future funding and possibly cancel much of the recommended investment.

As the availability of public funds diminishes, with the fall in taxation revenues, will we see anything like what was promised in Labor's "education revolution"?

The Bradley Review finds that higher education is in a state of sorry neglect. Since 1996, it has steadily fallen behind other OECD countries, suffering a decline in public funding when other industrialised capitalist economies enjoyed healthy expansion.

The review recommends significant increases in public investment in teaching and learning; higher loadings for regional and outer metropolitan institutions; and a major boost in research and postgraduate funding. All this would be administered through a new independent accreditation body.

The review also suggests that universities be permitted to offer extra domestic undergraduate places on the basis of full fee payment. It puts an end to the possibility of "teaching only" universities (which would have no research mission).

Regional institutions are at the centre of Bradley's recommendations. Above all, it recommends a target of 40% of 25-35 year old graduates to come from rural, low socio-economic and Indigenous backgrounds — areas in which regional universities stand out. How this is to occur is not clear.

To date, the Rudd government's announcements on the Bradley and Cutler reviews suggest that some of the "good and the ugly" will be adopted. Education minister Julia Gillard has indicated that Labor will keep its election promise to abolish domestic full-fee paying places. HECS will be capped at current levels.

Minister for innovation Kim Carr has announced that research funding will also receive a significant boost with research infrastructure grants going up.

Yet there is one proposal that is extremely alarming: the endorsement of a "student demand driven mode". The government is at pains to distinguish this from the so-called voucher system championed by pure free market economists and some Liberals.

"(T)his is not a voucher", education minister Julia Gillard told a Universities Australia Conference on March 4. "Students will not be receiving a set dollar entitlement to be redeemed at an institution of their choice."

Instead, Commonwealth payments for teaching will be allocated according to student choice of university courses, with some transition arrangement set in place. Rhetoric aside, it remains quite unclear what the difference in real substance is between the two policies, especially as the Labor government's proposed funding regime looks like it will present universities with considerable uncertainty and instability.

It would undoubtedly put less popular programs in mathematics, women's studies, science and languages at risk. It will provide an incentive for universities to deepen the casualisation of the work force because of the fluctuations in funding it will bring about.

The National Tertiary Education Union is campaigning for a meaningful social mission for universities. Among many NTEU proposals, the union has responded to Bradley with three points about funding.

The core funding for teaching must be substantially increased. Commonwealth grants must be fully indexed (in 2008 they grew by only 2%, well behind inflation). Finally, a staggered course of funding increases looks viable even in the context of declining public revenues from the economic crisis.

In addition, the NTEU has outlined a Workforce Development Plan to create 1800 public sector jobs in higher education based on a casual conversion scheme. The union has been campaigning in the lead up to the May budget with these essential points.

If the message is to make a difference beyond the budget cycle, the campaign will have to spread throughout the post-secondary sector and find some resonance elsewhere. Campaigning alliances are crucial in this climate.

Catch-up public funding from the years of neglect? The threat of marketisation of education? The good and the ugly are all put up in this round of post-secondary education restructuring. Attention turns to the May budget when the plans will start to materialise. The Hawke-Keating era is remembered for the introduction of HECS and the creation of a unified national system.

Howard is remembered for savaging levels of public investment, hamstringing universities and allowing them to fall behind OECD standards.

The question remains open for the Rudd government busy reconciling contrary policy aims. Will it be best remembered for achieving a market model of education that even the Liberals couldn't?

[Jeremy Smith is branch president of the University of Ballarat branch of the NTEU and a member of the Socialist Alliance.]

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