Words Julia Gillard may regret

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.

6 thoughts on “Words Julia Gillard may regret

  1. The low SES target is going to be a real killer. As the Bradley Review showed, low SES enrolments have been around 15% for at least the last two decades despite all the effort put in by governments and universities. How on earth is Gillard going to bring about a 33% increase in low SES enrolments in ten years!!!!
    To make matters worse, as Gillard pointed out in her speech, 15year olds from low SES households have much lower aspirations to enrol in higher education than kids from higher SES households. How much money will be wasted trying to convince these kids they should go to uni, money that would be better spent funding uni places?
    No doubt Krud will blame neo-liberalism or global warming for the failure to achieve the target:-)

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  2. “But sooner or later the massive gap between her rhetoric and the reality of her policies will start to catch up with her”
    .
    I think you’re too optimistic. I don’t think too many people care about the HE sector in Australia (probably including Gillard), excluding the every idiot gets a fair go mantra, and all will soon be forgotten. On this note, I find it surprising how much Australians think that trying to achieve some warped form of egalitarianism is worth becoming the trash of their own country for.

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  3. You’re right Conrad… the public generally don’t care probably because the majority have no experience of HE. What I have never understood is why governments don’t seem to care either. Is it just an issue of them being cynical (no votes in it)? Or are they too scared to make the really hard decisions necessary to transform the sector?

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  4. “the public generally don’t care probably because the majority have no experience of HE”
    .
    I think that’s only part of the story, since there are certainly countries with lower participation rates where the average person on the street does care (after working in France and Hong Kong, I can vouch for them both. With less certainty, you can probably add some states in the US to that list as well as Singapore and Taiwan). To start getting the full Australian story, I think you need to add a healthy dollop of anti-intellectualism and deliberate misinformation purveyed by various groups (politicians being one of those groups).

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  5. I would have thought the federal government having a “vision” for Universities 15 years into the future would go pretty hand in hand with micromanagement.

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