tip off

NSW axes education spending — and screws Wayne Swan

The NSW Education Department is this morning tweeting a handy link to its school website for “help with adding and subtracting numbers”. Perhaps the minister Adrian Piccoli will have a look; the NSW Treasurer Mike Baird is clearly an avid follower.

After cadging a skinny increase of only 3% in the June state budget, Piccoli — among education ministers, probably the most enthusiastic supporter of the federal government’s Gonski reform proposals — has been beaten up in NSW cabinet, with city Liberals turning on a guy they perceive as a dripping-wet Nat.

Piccoli has been forced to put the razor to his own department, slashing $1.7 billion from the budget, shedding 1800 jobs and increasing TAFE fees by 9.5%.

He even tried it on the independent and Catholic school sectors but their stunning ability to send forth an army of angry bees whenever the honeypot is threatened saw Piccoli stung in so many uncomfortable places he had to dramatically scale back the extent of the cuts. Tony Abbott is said to have remarked that supporting private schools is “in our DNA” and other cabinet ministers were clearly left questioning Piccoli’s genetic antecedents.

Even more pain was inflicted on TAFE, the one education sector guaranteed to never squeal as loudly or as effectively. It may be a massive contributor to building social capital but, unfairly and unfortunately, it has none of its own. It’s like education’s dirty little secret — so many go there for skills or certification that will actually get them a job rather than academic prestige but no one wants to admit it. It has no boosters: when was the last time Cardinal Pell picked up the phone to complain about cuts to training for electrical apprentices?

Teachers escaped direct pain — for now. But the mauling of the education department — which comes on top of the loss of 200 more jobs in June — has teachers asking a valid question. Either all those staff were doing nothing or someone — read: teachers — is going to have to pick up the jobs. Will students be affected? Probably not. The minister is clearly banking on teachers working harder to provide the same, or better, service with less support for curriculum development, targeted programs and administrative assistance.

But the real target in the NSW cuts is the federal government’s budget rather than Piccoli or the teacher unions — who detest each other but appear to have found common ground on this issue.

The NSW move is torn from the mining royalties’ playbook: do whatever you can to make your own budget work, especially if the feds will be stuck with the bill. Mining states jack up royalties knowing the mining companies have a deal that allows the increase to be passed on to Canberra. NSW is backing the same principle on education spending.

The thinking goes like this. Julia Gillard’s last hope in a 2013 election is to make it about education funding. To do that, she’ll have to spend not just like there is no tomorrow but like she actually cares about the future. Originally, the Gonski review called for an injection of $5 billion — not from the feds but from state governments as well. NSW — which runs the biggest education system in the nation, and one of the world’s biggest — could have been expected to stump up something like $1 billion.

Of course, it was never going to. Conservative state governments desperately want the Gonski money but plan on playing hard to get in negotiations with federal Labor: your money to buy our political support for a deal.

But there’s something even better than that game. In bureaucratic terms, it’s called “maintenance of effort”. Or lack thereof. The federal government is quickly becoming aware how difficult it is to negotiate with the enemy, especially when their plan is “you put in, we pull out”.

Now that’s a skill worth tweeting on the school website — how to slip your money out of one pocket and trouser some federal cash into the other. And it’s a way to balance a budget. Just not Wayne Swan’s.

*Follow Andrew Stephenson on Twitter: @stevensonwriter

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