Education: Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

Around Australia today there will be mutterings in the staff rooms of the universities about the cuts that the universities will endure in order that the Government can pump some money into the schools. There have been continual cries from the school sector that the Gillard Government has to back the Gonski report, and the weekend’s announcement is some kind of response, one that had to come before the election. Amid the joy from schools there haven’t been many speakers who have lamented the way in which the funding is being produced.

There is a lot to go through yet before the announcement has any reality in funding. The COAG meeting on Friday will be a test of whether or not the State Premiers will bow gracefully and commit their own governments to support not just the expenditure that is being asked of them, but in signing up to the Gillard Government’s policies about school education. And they will no doubt be thinking about how much of any of this educational grandstanding an Abbott Government is likely to retain. Mr Abbott is playing this one quietly, as well he should.

Back to the universities. They have had efficiency dividends asked of them before, and one set of them came hot on the heels of the election of the Howard Government in 1996. I remember discussing it with Amanda Vanstone, the relevant Minister. She didn’t seem to have much sympathy for universities. In my experience few Ministers  do. And there is a straightforward reason: most of them were not conspicuous successes at university, at least in academic terms, had they been there at all. And those who were academically proficient, like Bob Hawke, Neal Blewett, and maybe Tony Abbott himself, might well put their success down to their own native intelligence, and not to any particular care or attention on the part of those who taught them.

On the whole, university teachers are not famous for being much loved. There has been an improvement in the attention paid to good teaching, and some celebration of the outstanding teachers themselves. But even more attention is being paid within universities to research prowess. Research investment in the higher education sector has about tripled since 1990, and now represents just about 0.6 per cent of GDP. Great news? Well, it depends on what you are valuing. One outcome is that good researchers are buying themselves out of some or all of their teaching load, and promotions and appointments now seem to be contingent upon a strong research record. What will happen to good teaching?

For years I have preached (and it is a sermon) that universities have to take students much more seriously than they do, not just because students are worth that attention, but because in the long run not to do so is simply stupid. Students are the future leaders of our country, and it is important for universities that the leaders remember their time at their own university with gratitude and affection. I don’t see much sign of it now, and I haven’t in the past either. It seems even less likely in the future, and it is part of the reason that you will not hear a great deal of sympathy for higher education in the next week or two. The laments will come from within the sector.

I could say the same about the  attitudes of the public service, too. Again and again I have encountered a certain hostility towards the higher education sector within Australia’s public service, and for much the same reasons that I find it among politicians. Universities are seen as lofty places, arrogant, full of themselves, and ungrateful no matter what is done for them. One very senior public servant, working in the technical area, once said that universities’ attitudes toward funding could be summed up as ‘Put the cheque under the door and go away!’ Another, a departmental secretary, told me that he would end the research grants system tomorrow if it were up to him — what good had it ever done for Australians?

Yes, higher education is a great export earner and yes, there are a million students at university and, yes, it is good for Australians to win the Nobel Prize in anything. But we very rarely see prominent people in any other walk of life come to the aid of the universities when they are under attack. My guess is that the funding announcement will be another example.

For my part the announcement is another genuinely abysmal decision by the Labor Government. You don’t aid the education sector by shifting large amounts of money within it. I am in sympathy with the core elements of the Gonski report, but what it pointed to was the need to ensure that every child had much the same chance of a good school education, no matter where they were. Of course, a lot depends on the attitudes towards education of the parents, the peer group of the child and the general culture of the area. But yes, you can ensure that the schools are roughly comparable.

But taxing the higher education sector to improve the schools suggests that universities are overfunded. Really? What is the evidence? Gonski pointed to the need for new money, not redistribution. What is happening in universities nonetheless warrants further examination, and I’ll do that in a day or two.



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