The detail of PM Kevin Rudd's election promise of an "education revolution" in higher education is finally coming to light: privatisation, deregulation and increased competition between institutions.
In the lead-up to the 2007 federal election, Rudd worked furiously to narrow the differences between the policy of Labor and the Howard Coalition government.
Education was one of the few areas where Labor chose to clearly differentiate itself from the Coalition — at least in words.
However, speaking to the Universities Australia conference in Canberra on March 4, education minister Julia Gillard said the changes would mean a "student-centred, demand-driven higher education system".
Her speech, outlining the government's real plan for the "education revolution" revealed that, rather than a revolution, Labor's scheme will deepen the pro-privatisation changes to higher education previously implemented under Howard.
The Rudd government is treating higher education as an industry — rather than a democratic right.
The 'student market'
The proposed changes take up key elements of the Bradley Review of Australian Higher Education, released in December 2008. The Bradley review was commissioned to examine the current state of the Australian higher education system.
It made recommendations for reforms that increase total enrollments in tertiary education and allow for increased numbers of international, full-fee paying places.
Under the changes, course provision and student numbers will be funded solely according to demand from individual students.
Currently, the Commonwealth Grants Scheme for higher education allocates federal funds for each specific discipline (eg. nursing, education, arts, etc.) based on overall student numbers.
From 2012, funding will be allocated according to how many individual students enroll in a particular course. Government funds will be provided based on how many students each institution attracts.
From 2010, the government will raise the cap on over-enrolments from 5% to 10%. From 2012, caps on student numbers will be scrapped altogether and universities will be allowed to take as many students as they deem profitable.
Gillard has set a target to raise the numbers of people aged 25 to 34 holding a bachelor degree from 32% to 40% of the population by 2025.
But without extra funding, this expansion in student numbers, coupled with the removal of over-enrolment caps, would simply mean a further drop in the quality of education.
Student-staff ratios went from 13:1 in 1990 to 20:1 in 2006 and the quality of education has already degenerated under successive neoliberal reforms. Gillard has not explained how the education system can take in more students without without a significant funding increase and not compromise quality.
In short, the proposed changes will encourage universities to pile as many students into courses as possible. Each university will be forced to compete with one another for the "student market".
Even worse, any distinctions between funding of public and private institutions will be removed — individual students, not public education, will attract funding.
Education for profit
This demand-driven model will place some institutions, particularly smaller or regional providers, at risk. Not all institutions will survive and mergers are expected.
Queensland University of Technology vice-chancellor Peter Coaldrake told the Age on March 7: "There is a potential for a strongly demand-driven system to jeopardise the viability of some campuses and universities, particularly … in rural and regional areas."
Education providers will be free to shut down courses, subjects and departments that do not attract large numbers.
James Tier, the education officer for the Wollongong Undergraduate Students' Association, told Green Left Weekly: "The changes mean a further shift towards higher education as degree factories, focused on graduate outcomes rather than critical thinking."
Despite acknowledging the importance of increasing research, the government's plan leaves the door open to "teaching only" universities. Gillard failed to announce any projected increase in research funding.
Starving universities for research funding over recent decades has meant that research content, applications and outcomes have been increasingly tied to private-sector interests.
Tier argued that "this situation is only set to get worse under increased competition for students, particularly given that they will be competing with cheaper-to-operate, non-research, institutions".
While there will be a new regulatory agency to carry out audits of educational standards and performance, its primary aim, according to Gillard, will be to ensure the quality of international education.
Today, international education is Australia's third largest export earner — behind coal and iron ore.
Gillard's office stated on March 18 that "the International Student Data for the month of January 2009 released by Australian Education International (AEI) revealed that the number of full-fee international students grew by 21.4 per cent".
A key aim of the Rudd government's "education revolution" is to encourage universities to make even more high fee-paying postgraduate and international student places available.
Behind all the talk of "empowering" students with greater "choice", is an agenda to run our education system for profit.