An education revolution! That’s what they promised us after years of philistinism and disinvestment (Wayne Swan’s word). The impoverishment, forced universities to become market players to survive and academic leaders lost sight of what universities were for. The primary cost of higher education shifted to students and the ability to pay began to supersede academic ability. All students could then think of was getting a good degree from a good university in order to get a good job to pay back their higher education debt.

In view of this sorry state of affairs, it would be churlish to object to the $11 billion Education Investment Fund (actually $5 billion, to be added to the $6 billion Higher Endowment Fund initiated by the Howard Government). Furthermore, it’s not just an interest-only fund and $500 million will be available immediately. The money is for infrastructure, not operating expenses. Infrastructural spending was sadly neglected by the previous government, which was intent on privatising education, and I have no doubt that the Sandstones will appreciate money to save their crumbling cloisters.

However, there is little about the substance of education. The Budget may not be the place for it but we know the devil lies in the detail. There is also the convenience of Professor Denise Bradley’s Higher Education Review Expert Panel not reporting until later in the year.

Full fees for domestic undergraduates are to go as promised, but there weren’t a lot of full fee-payers anyway. What is worrying is that HECS (a euphemism for fees devised by John Dawkins), which persisted in creeping ever upwards under Howard, is still with us.

The budget surplus meant there was sufficient money to revert to a Whitlam-style free higher education. But we know that’s not going to happen. Treating higher education like a commodity and students like consumers has become normalised. Vice-chancellors, the public and the government itself have become accustomed to it. The higher education ‘industry’ is now worth more than $12 billion pa, having even surpassed tourism. How can Rudd/Swan go back to the way things were if they retain a deep atavistic desire to emulate Howard/Costello?

To be seen to be handing over a bucket of money, just as Howard/Costello did, is far more spectacular and memorable in the eyes of the electorate than trying to retrieve the essence of ‘the public’ in the public university.

Margaret Thornton is a Professor in the ANU College of Law & Vice-President (ACT) of the Association for the Public University.

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