We are less than two weeks away from a Rudd government, but still the party promising an ‘education revolution’ has no higher education policy. The Opposition Leader’s campaign launch today did announce a few higher education related initiatives, but the silence continues on the key issues of how universities will be funded and how much they will get.
Two of the three initiatives announced today, while not high impact or on top priority matters, are likely to have some positive consequences for universities. The Future Fellowships program, which would give high salaries by university standards to mid-career researchers, could be a useful way of keeping academics with outside options in the higher education system. Doubling the number of research students receiving Australian Postgraduate Awards (effectively a scholarship that pays about $20K a year) could help more of them study full-time. In my own experience and that of many others, trying to write up a PhD while also working is very difficult.
I’m far less keen on Labor’s plan to double the number of Commonwealth Learning Scholarships, which provide about $2,000 a year to those who receive them, and expand the criteria away from just disadvantaged students to people enrolled in ‘national priority’ areas, and those moving interstate to study a specialist course not available near their home.
If the federal government is going to provide income support to students, it should do it in a fair and efficient manner. The Commonwealth Learning Scholarships fail both tests. It is not fair because the limits on numbers mean that scholarships can only go to some of those who satisfy the basic eligibility criteria. The universities get allocated a certain number of scholarships and then distribute them. The scholarships are not counted as income for the purposes of the Youth Allowance income test, while $2,000 received as wages by students who work would be counted and could reduce their welfare entitlements. The scholarships are inefficient because distributing them requires more bureaucracy in universities, when we already have Centrelink set up to handle income support. I’d scrap the scholarships and put the money towards reforming Youth Allowance.
Giving scholarships to people who happen to enrol in ‘national priority’ areas ‘such as nursing, teaching, medicine, dentistry, allied health, maths, science, and engineering’ is confusing. What is it supposed to achieve? Like Labor’s discount HECS for maths and science announced earlier in the year, this suggests that the Labor leadership doesn’t quite understand the issues in higher education. In his speech today, Kevin Rudd said:
we will tackle the chronic shortage of maths and science teachers by halving HECs for those disciplines at university.
But there is little evidence that financial incentives from government influence discipline choice; the main driver is student interests, and to the extent that students are driven by money career earnings factors will swamp a $2,000 a year scholarship. In many of the health-related fields, there is a lot of unmet demand already anyway. As this point suggests, the main problem is supply rather than demand. And to encourage supply, you need to raise the price paid to universities, not cut the price paid by students. The national priority scholarships will simply be a windfall gain for those students who receive them, and will have no impact on ‘national priority’ fields.
The scholarships for students moving interstate to study specialist courses is more interesting. It’s not trying to encourage students to do something they’d rather not do; it’s trying to make it easier for them to do something they really want to do. And a more national higher education market is also worth encouraging. But why just ‘interstate’? James Cook University’s tropical biology course in Townsville (Labor’s example) is a very long way from Brisbane as well as Sydney (Labor’s example).
Not all these ideas are bad, but the misguided focus on demand is a worrying sign about what might be in Labor’s higher education policy – if in fact they have one at all.
Update 15 November: For the first time in a long time I am in agreement with NUS:
National Union of Students president Michael Nguyen said instead of merely doubling the Government’s “inadequate scholarship program”, Labor should have announced a streamlined form of income support.
Labor’s student followers are also unimpressed with their decidedly non-revolutionary tinkering.