Letter from Australia: a lesson in pork-barrelling

Paul Keating, our former Ermengegildo Zegna-clad Prime Minister, cut a swathe through Australian political life with his biting and often hilarious epigrams.

Years ago, he described the Liberal Coalition as being so incompetent they couldn’t “operate a tart shop”.

In the current climate, it’s not just funny, it’s sadly true. There’s a certain knee-jerk quality to much of what is happening in higher education in the past couple of months. I think we can safely say good policy is playing second fiddle to ad hoc announcement with an ideological tinge.

It’s nearly election time

One of the most recent decrees from new Education Minister Dan Tehan has all the subtlety of a pork barrel falling off the back of a rogue truck. Last week, he announced he would redirect $135 million out of the research support fund to six regional university campuses – campuses that he said would be hit hard by his own government’s decision to recap undergraduate places at 2017 levels.

The six campuses of five regional universities, it turns out, are all located in federal seats that are marginal and vulnerable to a swing to Labor in next year’s election. In other words, its a vulgar attempt to buy votes.

Most galling is the $40.7 million over four years for Federation University’s Berwick campus. Berwick is far from regional. Google Maps reveals Berwick to be deep suburbia – it is in fact located just 37 kilometres from Melbourne’s CBD. But it is in an electorate that is held by the Liberal Party with a margin of just 1.5%.

That’s not all. The Berwick campus was taken over by FU from Monash University back in 2016 and has, it appears, to arrest the slide in enrolments. Numbers are currently less than 1500.

Using back of the envelope calculations, for the university to be able to spend the $40m (at $10m a year), it would need an additional 1000 students a year. In 2017, the university enrolled just 365 students under the demand-driven system. It seems unlikely they will be able to recruit another 635 or thereabouts.

The Grattan Institute’s Andrew Norton notes that if they don’t enrol that number of students, but will only be paid the equivalent of numbers enrolled.

“Under the Act, they can never be paid for more than they have delivered – legislated Commonwealth contributions times the number of EFTSL (equivalent full-time student load),” Norton said.

“Legally, what will happen is that they will get a new higher maximum total Commonwealth contribution payment but the law is still that they are paid the lesser of that or the value of places delivered.”

One assumes the money not “spent” will not be returned to the research support scheme and is likely to disappear into central coffers.

The same principle applies to the University of the Sunshine Coast which is allocated to receive $30.2 million for its two campuses at Caboolture and Fraser Coast – both campuses in federal seats considered vulnerable to a swing to the Opposition.

Fraser Coast has around 425 students while Caboolture has around 400. It’s no wonder that SCU vice-chancellor Greg Hill described, perhaps inaccurately, the announcement as “being in the national interest”.

In order for those two campuses to absorb the additional funding they would need to attract a combined additional 750 students a year. Once again the maths defies probability.

Making sense of nonsense

I asked the Education Department if the universities had applied for the money and what formula had been used to ascertain the amounts awarded to them. I also asked why these campuses, and not others that were vulnerable to financial penury due to the recapping of student places, had been selected.

This is the response I got: “The government has supported requests that relate to a campus transfer, a prior commitment to invest in increased capacity in a specific area, or the Northern Australia agenda.” It literally does not make sense.

In addition to FU and SCU, Central Queensland University’s main Rockhampton campus – which straddles two extremely marginal seats – received $9.1m, while James Cook University also received $9.1 for its Townsville campus. The seat is held by Labor with a 0% margin.

Meanwhile, Newcastle University, which runs an outpost medical school on the Central Coast, received $3.3m. It’s in a Federal seat has just a 1.1 per cent margin.

Other regional universities with regional campuses with safe seats – University of Southern Queensland, University of New England, La Trobe, even Deakin University’s Warrnambool campus in Tehan’s own electorate which has been struggling to get bums on seats – were not rewarded with government largesse, a fact that must cause some rancour among their vice chancellors.

We’ve been here before

It’s not just the bold and blatant shifting of funds for political advantage. Peak group Universities Australia has pointed out some of these lucky recipients could actually be worse off because they could potentially lose more research funding than they gain in this rigged compensation fund. This would be particularly true of JCU which has world-recognised research programs in marine science.

Speaking of which, the government got into a world of trouble earlier this year when it quietly awarded $444m in research funding to a very small outfit called the Great Barrier Reef Foundation without going to tender. This regional campus deal has a similar stink to the decision making process – or as we in Australia like to call it a “captain’s call” (made famous in 2015 when then PM Tony Abbott decided without consultation to hand Prince Phillip a knighthood – in a country that didn’t have knighthoods).

A long list

Tehan has only been in office for two months. But universities are scrambling to keep up with his ad hoc announcements and struggling to develop strategies on how to deal with them.

He first announced a “national interest test” for all grants awarded by the Australian Research Council. By that he means, ensuring greenie, leftie, arty humanities grants don’t get a guernsey.

He also announced an inquiry into how to ensure regional universities get more international student enrolments. Currently only 3.1% of Australia’s 800,000 international students study in a regional area.

In a stroke of genius (genuinely) Tehan appointed Phil Honeywood, the exceptionally talented and politically astute chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia, to run the inquiry. That will keep Honeywood, who was an early critic of the idea, in his box. (At the time Honeywood noted that regional universities cannibalised their own regional/international enrolments by putting up high-rise shop fronts in the major cities and thereby contributing to the congestion and infrastructure shocks that Tehan claims he is trying to address.)

And then there is Tehan’s review into freedom of speech on campuses. As UA chair Margaret Gardner pointed out: universities had more than 100 policies, codes and agreements that supported free intellectual inquiry.

“In this context, it is unclear what issue the government is seeking to address,” she told The Australian.

Like the ARC debacle, it’s an ideological agenda designed to paint universities as the enemy of the right.

Tehan inherited and is pushing on with a plan for cost recovery of the administration of the income-contingent loans scheme. Universities are calling it a “tax” on teaching and learning.

There is a proposal to cut 3000 government-subsidised postgraduate places as well as suggestions that regional universities will be exempt from a planned redistribution of medical places.

There is nothing coherent in any of this. It’s piecemeal announcements on the run that will lead to a hiding to nothing.

Back to Paul Keating. Speaking about the political woes that have the potential to undermine Australia’s miracle economy (27 years of consistent economic growth), the former Prime Minister recently told The Economist: “This lot couldn’t manage a jar of five-cent bits”.

He couldn’t be righter.

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