It’s injury time in reform debate

Friday , 5, December 2014 Leave a comment

Below is an opinion piece I wrote for The Australian, that was published online yesterday.
You can also view the piece online here.

The Senate voted down the higher education reforms yesterday, but the Minister introduced a revised bill into the Lower House this morning, to have it ready for the Senate early next year when Parliament resumes.

It is difficult to know whether we are at half time or in injury time.  Maybe we have the same again to look forward to, or maybe this is a ruse and it is nearly over.  Having a current bill before Parliament apparently allows the Government to continue counting the assumed savings in its budget calculations, but the public opinion against the reforms is running so strongly that perhaps pragmatic heads will prevail over the summer and it will not return.

Assuming we have to do it all again, here are some reflections on the first half.

As a democracy we are in trouble. One of the more scathing comments about my own performance recently was that I was hopelessly naive in the first place to believe what the now Government had said before the election.  It does seem to be the case that one can say absolutely anything before an election and then just tough it out later if one wins.  More fool us.

As a peak body, I didn’t understand the initial turn that Universities Australia took.  When Labor introduced a small percentage efficient dividend in 2013, the sector plastered the media with its opposition. When the Coalition introduced a 20% cut in 2014, but with the promise that one could charge it back from the students and then go further, the response was to ask politely if the Government wouldn’t mind making the cut perhaps a bit smaller (please). Being ravaged by a dead sheep, to use the classic phrase from British politics, would have been more frightening.

Had there been national advertisements immediately after the Budget opposing these cuts, and a firm statement that we aren’t going to put up with this, some bargaining from strength would have been possible.

Universities Australia, and individual institutions, may have stored up some real trouble for themselves now, because my sense is that academic and professional staff have woken up to a seeming sell-out of the values of public education and the students in our care.

For the Government there may be lessons to be learned in policy design. The package had too many moving parts (extending HECS to sub-bachelor courses, extending HECS to private providers at a lower rate, imposing a real interest rate, cutting recurrent funding, allowing fee de-regulation but then requiring there to be a scholarship pool from 20% of new moneys, and so on).  The public, and the non-specialist media, were never going to get their heads around this.  The impression was simply that the prospects for our children were being unfairly worsened.

Two glaring design weaknesses were never properly addressed.  Where is the guarantee that a student who takes on more debt now will see any benefit in their course or university experience?  And how is it a budget savings measure if fees go up?  HECS works through the Government advancing all the fees up front to the university, so if more students default, because debts are higher, the taxpayer could end up having paid out more cash.

Finally, for our national governance there could be a lesson in statesmanship and honour.  So much was at stake here, for the next generation and the future of the country, that ambushes, horse-trading, tacky offers of $400m and being content to win by one vote, no matter whose, just demeaned the process and made one wonder whether education is in safe hands.

When asked whether he was planning to buy more players, an English football manager once replied that he had a number of irons in the fire but was keeping them close to his chest.  I await more painful surprises.

But first, some physio, before the second half.

 

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