Letter from Australia: A tale of two speeches

Something didn’t go according to plan for Education Minister Dan Tehan at last week’s Universities Australia conference.

His speech, which let’s be honest wasn’t hotly anticipated, went considerably undertime and was almost devoid of content. Most of it consisted of an anecdote about herding sheep (which it appears Tehan is good at because he’s a country lad). I can’t remember the moral to the story – or even if there was one.

Anyway, it wasn’t the speech Tehan had planned to give. The original had been dropped to a couple of media outlets the previous day and revealed that he intended on bashing up the sector for its greed and rapaciousness. He had intended using a combined $2 billion surplus in 2017 and $325 million advertising spend as proof that universities were looting government resources.

He had planned to tell the sector that the government’s annual $12bn spend on research needed to be better shared with regional universities – odd that base research funding is meted out according to strict methodologies and the bulk of it assigned according to merit – aka peer review. He was going to tell university leaders they had better up their ante when it comes to getting rural and regional kids into university. He was also going use as evidence a search (no doubt by a staffer in his office) of the Australian Research Council’s database had revealed only one funded project on lifting participation in rural and regional universities since 2001.

(Others, more au fait with the subject and the ARC, reckon that’s a load of old codswallop and it depends on your search criteria. Besides, the federally funded National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education has commissioned literally dozens of extensive reports and papers in the area.)

Instead, following a testy and uncomfortable interview on the ABC’s morning AM program, Tehan obviously thought better of provoking an already hostile audience. After all, the his government had cut $328 million from research funding at the end of last year, had already repurposed $135 million of research funding to shore up student enrolments in a small number of regional campuses in marginal seats. That was after calling a halt to the demand driven system for a couple of years, which the sector estimates will cost it around $2bn (and which, ironically, will be hardest felt by regional universities).

After a string of rather pointless platitudes, Tehan left centre stage. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t take questions.

Enter stage left

Opposition spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek was waiting in the wings. Unlike Tehan, Plibersek’s speech was dense with content and Fidel Castro-esqe in length. She won her audience within the first half-dozen sentences.

“Labor sees universities as the centre of our economic, intellectual and cultural life,” she said.

“A robust and liberal democracy needs educational institutions to help address the moral, social and economic issues of our time.”

With the scene set, Plibersek set about reiterating initiatives that had previously been announced:

  • A full-scale review (a la Augar) of the post-secondary education system with the view of reinstating the public vocational sector (TAFE) as a central part of the system
  • A return to the demand-driven system, putting an additional $10 billion into the system over 10 years
  • A commitment to three-year funding agreements (“Everyone in this room knows you can’t have a strong and dynamic higher education system without funding certainty”.)
  • Enshrine funding for the main equity scheme (Higher Education Partnerships and Participation Program) in legislation to stop any further opportunistic and ad hoc raiding of the fund (while the Coalition has sliced millions off the fund, it must be noted that Labor started the seemingly annual tradition of budget cuts back in 2012).
  • An additional $3.2m for mentoring and pathways and a commitment to maintain and develop 22 regional study hubs set up the the Coalition.

Plibersek also came with a couple of announceables.

  • The appointment of a regional and remote commissioner as part of Labor’s education inquiry. The commissioner will be “tasked with providing advice on how our funding, regulations, and other systems can boost participation in post-secondary education across every region in Australia”.
  • Updating the membership and strategy of the government’s Council for International Education to include representatives from TAFE and Universities Australia. To describe the current five-year strategy as “vague” is an understatement. Plibersek said the council would, among other things, be asked to address: quality of the student experience; student wellbeing; market diversification; the role of TAFE; graduate outcomes; enforcement of regulatory framework and consumer protection; and addressing innovation and competitiveness.

Plibersek also released the 13 terms of reference for her national inquiry.

Sting in the tail

While Plibersek is well ahead of the curve in terms of her understanding of and commitment to the sector, this is not going to be a proverbial bed of roses – a point she made clear to the UA conference delegates. Or, more plainly, “funding arrangements will clarify how universities are meeting community expectations”. She named two community expectations – increasing entry standards into teaching degrees and ensuring any culture of sexual harassment and assault on campuses is fully addressed.

On the teaching degree situation, which has been bubbling away for years as enrolments bulged from academically underprepared school leavers being offered entry with improbably low school results, Plibersek also brandished a hypothetically big stick. “Ultimately as federal Minister for Education I would have the ability to cap places in teaching degrees – and that option will remain a very live one in any future discussions,” she said.

Plibersek also raised the spectre of the return of university mission-based compacts – individual agreements between universities and the government that outline expectations across a range of areas. “I expect that funding agreements might address other national and local priorities such as meeting local labour market need, boosting diversity and participation, community engagement and driving research excellence,” Plibersek said.

Compacts were part of Labor’s HE armoury between 2008-13 but were never more than pro forma documents that outlined vague and ill-defined targets and plans. As far as I know, any potential punishments for not meeting agreed targets were never defined, or threats of such even meted out. They were, quite literally, an acrylic-stuffed toothless tiger. Universities passionately hate even the notion of mission-based compacts, seeing them as bureaucratic and interventionist. I, however, see them – if implemented with heart and vigour – as a way of somehow introducing and promoting institutional diversity into our very monochrome sector.

Take home message

Just why Tehan didn’t deliver his planned speech is anyone’s guess. And while his sheep-herding anecdote and empty rhetoric were bland and pointless, at least he left the room with the shirt still on his back – something that might not have been guaranteed if he had come out all guns blazing about excessive university surpluses and the redistribution of research funding to regionals.

Tehan appears to neither understand the sector or its context in modern Australia and the geopolitical environment in which it exists. He doesn’t  even seem to care. He has a myopic view of regional universities and appears to be completely in their thrall. The same is true for ministers across this tarnished and brittle government.

Labor has been building and polishing it’s HE policy for some years now. It will enter government, should it win the upcoming election, with a clear idea about what it wants, how to get there and how to implement it. But let’s not forget one very important lesson from recent history. In 2008, then education minister Julia Gillard commissioned the Bradley review. Only half the recommendations were ever implemented and only a handful still exist in some guise or another.

The demise of the Bradley recommendations and Gillard’s grand vision started while Labor was still in government but Gillard had moved on to be Prime Minister. Her successor Chris Evans made the first cuts to the HEPPP program, he completely ignored the findings of a major review into base funding and reneged on a Labor promise to help fund the full cost of research.

My point is this: grand visions are easily dimmed in light of political reality.

2 responses to “Letter from Australia: A tale of two speeches

  1. How are Australian universities ‘monochrome’: 6 dual sector universities, 14 with >50% students in external or multimodal education, a broad spectrum of research intensity, 3 private Australian universities, 2 overseas universities, 1 university of specialisation, etc. Or is this just code for no teaching-only university?

  2. Gavin, you know as well as I that all are comprehensive, the university of specialisation is the size of a high school, the two overseas universities have combined enrolments of a small high school. The dual sectors are an exception but I would hardly say that is the defining factor that draws in HE students. Melbourne, Notre Dame and Bond offer diversity – and I know the Notre Dame model is attracting students who would usually head off to Sydney/UNSW. ANU offers diversity in that it is a residential campus. The 39 members of UA look very similar to each other.

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