Today Education Minister Simon Birmingham will give a speech in effect telling the higher education sector that he’s the Terminator. He’s just going to keep on coming after universities in an effort to cut their funding. And nothing is going to stop him. In a speech that, as is the fashion of the time, was liberally distributed to journalists a day before he delivers it, Birmingham will tell universities they are “kidding themselves” if they think that pressure to cut their funding is going to relent.
The Senate, of course, has different views, and has already twice rebuffed an effort by the Abbott government to slash university funding and force students to pay much higher costs for their degrees. There’s speculation the government will try a non-legislative route to cut funding instead.
Monash vice-chancellor Margaret Gardner, on the other hand, complains that the government has no vision of what role universities play in the broader economy — except as a source for savings. Birmingham promptly confirmed this by declaring in his speech-to-be, saying “the need for budget savings should be self-evident. The Commonwealth government remains in deficit, has been for nine years.”
Alas, the need for savings isn’t quite so self-evident that the government isn’t wasting $60 billion-plus on company tax cuts that, by its own reckoning, will afford negligible economic benefits even over the long run, or tens of billions extra on naval vessels in order to employ fewer than 3000 workers in marginal South Australian electorates, or billions on a discredited piece of aviation junk called the F-35, or $1.8 billion and counting on making Australians less safe from terrorism by participating in foreign military ventures, or the couple of billion wasted on “Direct Action” projects that industry was going to undertake anyway. Not to mention smaller items like the $30 million gift to Foxtel or the $100 million handed to television networks in licence fee cuts.
One minister’s “self-evident” is another’s “deficit, what deficit?”, clearly.
Not that the Abbott-Turnbull government is alone in seeing universities as a piggy bank to be raided. According to the Bradley Review in 2008, the Howard government cut funding per student in real terms, such that when it left office there was significantly less funding per subsidised student than in 1996 — around 10% less. Funding did increase significantly under Labor following the Bradley Review, but toward the end of the Gillard years, funding was cut again to offset Labor’s commitment to school education under its version of the Gonski funding model (Gillard insisted it was just a cut in the growth of funding — the sort of line that Labor derided when the Abbott government used it about pensions). Ever since the 2014 budget, the current government has been trying hard to slash funding.
Governments don’t merely see higher education as a piggybank to be raided when other, politically sexier projects need funding. They also love to boast about how higher education is our biggest export sector after mining. That the higher seduction sector’s reliance on foreign students has led to a fall in academic standards, a resigned tolerance of rising levels of plagiarism and a decidedly unrigorous pandering to the reactionary nationalism of Chinese students and the demands of the Chinese government is of secondary importance to the flow of revenue from foreign students (many of whom enjoy the privilege of coming to Australia to study and being ripped off in retail jobs).
This isn’t some nostalgia for a pre-Dawkins lost era (like Joe Hockey, I was at Sydney University when fees were introduced by the Hawke government). Free university education was a form of middle-class welfare; universities and academics were far less accountable and the quality of education in them was highly variable. Students paying part of the costs of their education, greater accountability and more rigorous assessment of teaching quality are all advances on the Whitlam era. But the higher education sector has become a classic example of how neoliberals understand the price of everything and the value of nothing. Universities must have a substantial non-economic value, in imparting not merely subject-specific skills and expertise but critical thinking and intellectual rigour, which don’t merely provide nebulous benefits to the quality of the polity, but make us a more innovative, resilient and clever country. Those things can’t be shoehorned into a purely economic model in which universities only exist as degree factories and funding can be endlessly cut because there’ll always be more foreign students to attract if you drop standards low enough.
The B-side of all this is the disaster of vocational education, much, but not all, of the responsibility for which rests with Labor. Contestability of vocational education and training was always going to be a recipe for shonkery and outright fraud — the persistent lesson of corporatisation, privatisation and outsourcing over 30 years in Australia is that, whatever benefits may flow to the Treasury through asset sales or reduced spending, in the private sector gougers gonna gouge and rorters gonna rort, eventually requiring massive re-regulation. It’s fallen to Simon Birmingham to clean up the costly mess in that sector.
The demand for austerity while corporations get tax cuts, the vision of a sector as purely about economic value, the counter-productive lowering of standards, the failure to safeguard against private sector rentseeking — it’s like a mediaeval mystery play of neoliberalism’s failures in a sector that plays a critical role in the shape of the economy of the next decade.