My Daily Advertiser Op Ed column forv today’s Daily Advertiser: A double whammy for education

by ray goodlass

Last week the pre-budget announcements were coming in thick and fast, no doubt to get thorny issues out of the way, and to soften us up for today’s bad news, and so early last week saw Messrs Turnbull & Co clear the decks of two thorny education issues, school and university funding.

Both were exercises in spin designed to fool the gullible, with the prize going to schools funding, though the propaganda that universities could afford the proposed cuts made it a close second. However, as the schools funding proposal seems vague and clouded in mystery until today’s budget is presented I’ll begin with and focus on university funding.

The government will cut university funding by 2.5 per cent, a decision they have based on the findings of a Deloitte report, which showed that between 2010-15 the cost of course delivery increased by 9.5 per cent, while revenue grew by 15 per cent. So many, but by no means all, universities are running healthy surpluses and, according to Simon Birmingham, Minister for Education, they can take a haircut.

This has been called an “efficiency dividend” but the system of higher education in Australia is anything but efficient.

Even though economic rationalism suggests that competition generates efficiency what passes for efficiency usually compromises the quality of education. It can mean giving students fewer curriculum choices, increasing class sizes, reducing face-to-face hours, teaching them with casual staff and substituting classroom teaching with “digital delivery”. All of these have happened and continue to do so at our own local Charles Sturt University (CSU).

One major problem is that taken individually such measures often provoke relatively little fuss. But in the light of Mr Birmingham’s claims, we all need to be taking notice and speaking out and making a big fuss, loudly and often.

If staff and undergraduates are being short-changed, where is the money going? I’m indebted to George Morgan, Associate Professor at the School of Humanities and Communication Arts and the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University for suggesting three main avenues. In the first instance many universities cross subsidise research with the public money they receive for undergraduate teaching largely because the federal government underfunds research.

Secondly, some universities have undertaken ambitious capital works programs, erecting what are in effect “signature” buildings such as Frank Gehry designed building at UTS, no doubt to communicate the new university’s cultural and intellectual importance.

Thirdly, administrative costs continue to grow inexorably. Most universities employ more administrators than academics

Given all this, what the university system requires is political and economic change, not short term and crude fiscal shocks. The university community (including both students and staff) needs to be given more power over institutional affairs to provide more democratic checks and balances over the excesses, caprice and follies of managerialism.

We also need to reduce the huge discretionary budgets that senior managers currently control.

As to Malcolm Turnbull’s declaration last week that he will “bring the school funding wars to an end” in a stunning turnaround that will see the government pump an extra $19 billion into schools over the next decade, I’m tempted to agree with Greens Education spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young’s comment that “We’ll look at the detail of this announcement, but what we know is that Australia’s school funding system is broken. It’s time our children’s education was prioritised in Australia. It’s a sad reality that many of our kids are being left behind,” which will certainly be the case as the government’s proposal means that less than half of additional federal funding over the next ten years will go to public schools, compared to 80 per cent under the Gonski agreements.