Gillard disrespects higher education

Update 11.30am 14/9: ‘Tertiary education’ to be added to Chris Evans’ ministerial title. Who is responsible for postgraduate coursework remains unclear, to me at least.

Update 9.30pm 14/9: The Coalition gets it right, with a shadow minister for education, Christopher Pyne, and a shadow minister for universities and research, Senator Brett Mason. The government has now clarified what Chris Evans will be responsible for postgraduate coursework. He is off to a shambolic start.

University lobby groups aren’t happy that there is no longer a minister for education, the portfolio being split between the minister for schools, early childhood and youth (Peter Garrett), the minister for jobs, skills and workplace relations (Chris Evans) and the minister for innovation, industry and science (Kim Carr).

The disappearance of higher education is most striking. I thought Evans might be the minister, but on Saturday afternoon I could not confirm it from the published list of new ministers. Gillard clarified the matter on Insiders on Sunday morning.

The atmospherics of this are really bad. John Dawkins is the Great Satan of traditional knowledge-for-its-own sake academics, but his policy documents always had a nod to the humanities and there was no significant steering of the system away from generalist degrees. Whatever he thought about arts academics or academics in general, he respected their self-conception as being about more than the service of the economy or whatever other goals the government of the day had.

By contrast Gillard as minister did not even bother with lip service support of the arts. The word ‘humanities’ doesn’t appear in her main policy document. Gillard seemed to have an instrumental view of higher education – it is there to provide skilled workers and create opportunities for the ‘socially excluded’. This was why I thought Gillard would put higher education in with vocational education under ‘skills’. That may be her policy priority, but it reflects tone deaf politics. A different set of words would have saved her this morning’s negative media.

What hasn’t appeared in the commentary is that the two men she has appointed as minister responsible for higher education are the two men whose decisions (or at least the decisions they announced) have done/will do most financial damage to higher education in the history of federal involvement in the field.

Simon Crean, minister from July to the weekend, was also the minister in 1995 when the Keating government announced an indexation system which cut per student funding in real terms every year from 1995 to 2004 and then again from 2008 to 2010.

And new minister Chris Evans in his previous capacity as immigration minister changed the migration rules in ways that will reduce the flow of international students, and the fees they pay that sustain the dysfunctional public core of the higher ed system. At least he will understand what the unis are complaining about….

11 thoughts on “Gillard disrespects higher education

  1. My understanding of universities these days is that it has fundamentally changed in the past 20 or 30 years. Whereas a university degree was a marked sign of differentiation, it is now almost a necessity for those corresponding jobs.
    I think the shift in the Gillard’s ministry reflects the change in wider society, and thus being more representative of society.

    This doesn’t mean I agree with universities becoming a place of vocational training, it is just how I see them.


  2. I think having unis as a “place of vocational training” is bad policy even in its own terms. It’s missing the point that what good education at all levels provides is as much “learning to learn” as specific knowledge. Very narrowly educated people are on average simply less productive in the workplace in the long run than more broadly educated people.

    And yes, boosting GDP, or even improving its distribution, is not everything. Man cannot live by bread alone.


  3. Australian universities have always trained people for the professions and provided generalist education. There is a problem if they are not producing the graduates required in the workforce. But focusing just on this aspect inevitably makes people in universities upset, since their self-conception is that they do more than this – and since the humanities are still hopelessly dependent on state funding it makes them particularly nervous.

    On the other hand, I am not sure of the empirical standing of DD’s analysis. I can’t see much sign in the labour force data that people who did vocation or industry specific uni courses are less capable of adapting to the workforce than those who did more general courses. People who did the upper-level voc ed qualifications also typically do ok.


  4. I thought it was just a cynical way to allow blame shifting — if you have a few people responsible for the same thing, no-one need take any responsibility when very little good news comes from trying to solve what amounts to a rather hard problem.


  5. Also, I actually think humanities might benefit from a focus on skills development, if that focus included a shift to quality, which I think it would. Lots of dodgy IT and business courses suck money away from far more rigorous and valuable courses. Australia could only gain by tightening up in those sectors.


  6. When you consider that not one member of cabinet has a science degree it’s a pretty amazing outcome. There is an imbalance in universities that needs to be addressed, the humanities have got way out of hand, good on the government if they can deal with it, but I doubt it. Humanities produce smart people that communicate well, thats why they have ran all over the science departments. Science departments produce smart people that do useful stuff, they have less time to play the games


  7. Gillard seemed to have an instrumental view of higher education – it is there to provide skilled workers and create opportunities for the ‘socially excluded’.
    I get the same impression from our Liberal Premier here in WA.


  8. The last minister with a science degree that I remember was Barry Jones, but while he was exceptional at pick-a-box he was hopeless at picking winners.

    Should we be concerned that no-one in Cabinet has a science degree? Or any other particular type of degree?

    Presumably, some types of learning/knowledge are more valuable for policy making than others. Also, some can be more sensibly devolved to expert advisers than others. I reckon science is in this camp.


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