Letter from Australia: on the hustings

Harry and Meghan were in Bondi on Saturday morning.

So were 16 candidates in the Wentworth by-election caused by the sudden resignation of former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull following possibly the stupidest political coup in modern history.

Wentworth is one of the oldest electorates in Australia, having been proclaimed in 1900, and it has never left Liberal (i.e. Tory) hands. That was until this week. As I write votes are still being counted, but it looks almost certain that independent Kerryn Phelps is set to take the seat after a 20% swing against the Libs (like bully-boy school kids with their socks around their ankles, the hapless mutineers are blaming Turnbull himself for the size of the swing).

But, wiser minds suggest it reflects the level of anger over the bloody and pointless coup, as well as lack of action over climate change, energy policy and refugee children on Nauru.

Given the mood in the electorate, its more than timely to see what the opposition has up its sleeve should it win the next federal election, slated for May 2019.

What’s up Labor’s sleeve

The headline announcement appears to be $10bn over 10 years to restore the demand-driven system (which was put on hold until 2020 last December). There’s another headline number of 200,000 additional university students over 12 years. Whether they are one in the same thing appears – to my back-of-the-envelope calculations – unlikely.

My dodgy maths goes something like this: 200,000 students over 12 years is roughly an extra 16,666 undergraduate students a year. That cannot possibly cost $1bn a year since the current cost of teaching grants to the sector’s 1.06 million domestic students was just $7bn in 2017-18.

I may be wrong and have been reassured by a Labor media advisor that this is, in fact, the case. He tells me it has been costed by the Parliamentary Budget Office (so who am I to disagree).

It is more likely, on my reckoning, that Labor’s $10bn over 10 years will include an extension of the demand-driven system to the vocational sector. This would be good policy.

My reasoning is this: Labor has promised a full review of tertiary education should they win the election. The demand-driven system is a matter of faith for Labor (it was they who introduced it from 2010 onwards following the 2008 Bradley review, which also recommended moving toward a unified tertiary education sector).

Rational policy analysts across the country are calling for such a thing.

Do we do the DDS dance?

But first, let’s take a step back. As HE wonk Andrew Norton from the think tank the Grattan Institute wrote in Times Higher Education earlier this year, the demand-driven system “wasn’t a failed experiment, but it was a costly one”, increasing government expenditure on university undergraduate places by nearly 50% in just six years.

The post-school sector is currently wracked by funding inconsistencies and rudely discriminates against non-university students.

While universities have seen their teaching grants increase from $4bn to $7bn, the public vocational sector has been punished by unhinged free-market policies, plummeting per-student funding and, unsurprisingly, the lemming-like leap of tens of thousands of would-be vocational students into universities (who rationally saw the writing on the wall).

The retreat has been so dramatic that wonk-extraordinaire Peter Noonan from Victoria University has warned that we could actually witness a decline in tertiary enrolments between now and 2030 if the policy settings are not adjusted soon.

Even within the HE sector, there is no consistency. Foundation programmes for vulnerable and under-prepared students are capped. The allocation of government subsidised postgraduate coursework places is a messy hodgepodge of historical and opportunistic decisions. Basically, it’s a mess.

Searching for unity

The 2008 Bradley review noted: “Moving to a demand-based approach to funding higher education cannot be done in isolation from VET. Changing higher education funding but leaving VET funding untouched would compound existing distortions.” And that is exactly what has happened.

Writing for a Group of Eight (Australia’s research-intensives) publication last year, Mark Burford, a former senior bureaucrat and now policy expert with Monash University, wrote it was now overdue that Australia: “embrace the interconnected tertiary sector and rebuild VET, including TAFE”. He said we, as a country needed to “re-envision the promise of the demand-driven system from one of a degree place for all to one of a tertiary opportunity – higher education and vocational education and training – for all who are able and who are willing to give it a go.”

Whether this is what Labor has planned is anyone’s guess at this stage. While the public vocational system has been flagged as a priority, just how much so will actually depend on how students are funded to attend. Whether that is why the maths adds up to $10bn over ten years or whether 200,000 additional students over twelve are somehow unusually expensive.

We are likely to know in about seven months time.

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