With the federal election campaign gearing up you might have expected a real debate between the major parties on how to improve our ailing education system. Even in the face of Australia’s much-touted skills crisis both the Liberals and Labor are singing the same tune.
This year’s budget papers show that Australia is the only OECD country in which education spending is expected to fall as a proportion of total government expenditure – from 7.7% in 2005-06 to 7.4% in 2010-11.
Instead of a massive, desperately needed boost in education spending, and a real debate about the future direction of education policy, we have seen both Howard and Rudd remain true to their neo-liberal philosophy of cuts and user pays. Howard has in fact redoubled his efforts to privatise the entire system and minimize government spending.
In May 2007, Federal Treasurer Peter Costello further shifted public education policy towards a US-styled privatised model, by creating a $5 billion Higher Education Endowment Fund. The fund’s apparent purpose is to pay for university infrastructure and research facilities. But the fund will only generate around $300 million a year for Australia’s 38 universities, which is about the same amount committed by the Keating Government back in 1992.
This return is only “a fraction of the return the Government could get by directly investing in recurrent funding of childminding, preschool, school and higher education”, according to Kenneth Davidson, a senior business columnist with The Age newspaper. The budget also removed the cap on the number of full-fee paying students that universities can enrol.
Similarly, the Howard Government says its recent decision to assume control of a Tasmanian public hospital may pave the way for takeovers in other sectors like education. This follows much speculation over a renewed emphasis on ‘tied grants’ to control how Commonwealth money is spent by educational institutions. Howard has made $31 billion in funding over four years conditional on schools flying the Australian flag, offering two hours of physical activity a week and providing ‘plain language’ report cards.
Howard wants the next four-year agreement with the state governments to be conditional on the introduction of performance pay for teachers. Howard has also made $220 million a year of extra higher education funding conditional on universities offering staff individual contracts and ensuring collective agreements do not allow automatic union representation of staff. Meanwhile, $4.4 billion over four years in vocational education and training funding has been made conditional on states agreeing to introduce individual contracts in the TAFE sector.
Howard has been allowed to get away with such outrageous education policies because the ‘opposition’ of Rudd’s Labor Party has completely failed to offer any alternative vision. Rudd has no alternative to a user pays system in education and has even refused to promise to rescind Howard’s Voluntary Student Union laws.
In one of the most crucial changes in higher education in decades, which threatens the future of mass tertiary-level education in Australia, Rudd and new Victorian ALP Premier Brumby have backed Melbourne University’s plan to bring in US-style graduate-based model. The plan, called ‘Growing Esteem’, will shift the traditional focus of education from undergraduate level to graduate level, where the university stands to increase its revenue. In the process student numbers will be cut by 10,000 (20-25%), as well as staff numbers, and many courses which don’t quite fit the ‘new generation’ degrees including gender studies and creative arts will be largely rolled back.
Neither major party’s education policy has anything to offer ordinary students. Under Liberal or Labor education will only be for the rich who can afford it. A user pays system will place more pressure on individual students, forcing many to abandon their education. Education should be a right for all, not a privilege for the few. The public education system must be defended.
By Socialist Party reporters