After more than a decade of the Howard Government [universities] felt neglected, and they had been neglected because there hadn’t been the proper investments into our universities. But they also felt under siege. They were rolled up in red tape, they could hardly scratch themselves without having to send a piece of paper to Canberra and wait for it to come back out. They weren’t able to see what the Government’s vision for universities was for the next five or 10 or 15 years, other than more neglect and more micromanagement. (italics added)
– Julia Gillard speaking yesterday to Alan Jones.
Let’s be clear on Labor’s record so far. Though as part of its stimulus measures it has given universities some capital hand-outs, its 2008-09 budget imposed real cuts on recurrent university income for teaching Commonwealth-supported students, and its phasing out of domestic full-fee students further reduced recurrent university teaching income. By contrast, Coalition budgets delivered real increases in 2005, 2006, and 2007 for all disciplines, and in 2008 for some disciplines.
The Coalition’s higher education policy was a shambles. But at least over the last few years there was some recognition that it was irrational to cut annually in real terms government teaching subsidies and to regulate student contributions so that these were also cut in real terms. The lead story in today’s Australian about the razor gang getting to Gillard’s higher education spending looks like part of an on-going downgrading of expectations for the higher education sector. It is possible that on the key issue of recurrent funding this year’s budget may confirm Labor’s record as worse than the Coalition’s. Unfortunately, universities cannot spend education revolution rhetoric.
As I argued in my recent CIS paper, this is not just some passing problem. It is a major structural flaw in a price controlled system, as it links the fortunes of universities to events that have nothing to do with education and over which they have no control.
As for red tape, has Gillard taken a look at what Kate Ellis is up to? Her amenities fee policy is possibly the worst example of regulatory over-kill I have seen in more than a decade of higher education policy work (and that is saying something). And though we are yet to see the detail, it is hard to see how Gillard’s own targets for low SES enrolments will be anything other than another bureaucratic extravanganza for DEEWR.
Gillard is a very effective political performer. But sooner or later the massive gap between her rhetoric and the reality of her policies will start to catch up with her.