Chris Pyne injects adrenaline into education

Pyne commits

Education Minister Christopher Pyne is as confident as he is game, demonstrated by the speech he will deliver in London tonight. “Education policy is, in many ways, economic policy. It affects productivity, participation, the standard of living and the vital parts of our society both in its physical health and intellectual sophistication,” he will say. As a commitment to education, especially universities, this is hard to beat and from today to the next election every academic who does not get what they want will quote it. And I bet Mr Pyne knows it but is so convinced in his plan that he is confident that he can see off his critics.

Hint, hint

“Labor is trying to confuse cutting their programmes with cuts in my portfolio education. Now I am very upfront – we aren’t going to continue all of Labor’s programmes – we have our own priorities and our own programmes and that means that there won’t be any cut to education overall which is exactly what we promised.” Mr Pyne on ABC Radio Adelaide late last week, not so subtly signalling big things to come.

A very big deal

And big things they are indeed. Mr Pyne is carefully keeping to convention in his London speech, twice stating that he is not pre-empting the budget. However he also made it plain that he wants to enact the core recommendations of David Kemp and Andrew Norton’s review. “While I am making no announcements today, let me make it perfectly clear – the recommendations of the Kemp-Norton Review with respect to expanding the demand driven system to diplomas and extending the Commonwealth Grants Scheme to students of all higher education providers have much to recommend them,” Mr Pyne will say. As to who will pay for it the minister is uncharacteristically quiet. HECS, “allowed students, regardless of their economic resources, to contribute to the cost of their higher education,” he will state, adding, “this provided a legacy of sustainable access in the Australian university system. It is a legacy the Coalition Government will uphold.” This can mean whatever the Treasurer wants it to mean but one way or another Mr Pyne is embracing the idea of education as an engine of economic growth. Which requires yet another round of reform to keep up, let alone get ahead of Asia. Mr Pyne will also emphasise deregulation to create a student focus and made it plain that he would welcome a broader range of institutions, including teaching only colleges. “Such colleges do not exist in Australia. Ours has been a highly constrained system of universities with limited scope for universities to shape their own offerings to students.” If this happens it is a big deal indeed, creating a leveller playing field between public and private providers in competing for students – and placing competition at the core of institutional purpose. If it happens this could make for the most profound change to the structure of post compulsory education providers in a generation. In effect Mr Pyne is contemplating the end of the Dawkins eras with institutions, be they private providers or universities, empowered to teach without research if they chose. The big gap is who will pay for another expansion of post school education.

An adrenaline injection

Is how commentator Andrew Dempster defined predictions of Mr Pyne’s plan that appeared over the weekend. Whatever you think of the plan Pyne’s politics are  brilliant. By backing demand driven funding, which is surely central to the proposal, and extending public funding to private providers, plus sub degree programs, Mr Pyne will be able to sell himself as a supporter of higher education. And if people point to cuts in the budget, if any, to non-medical research or industry linked programs the minister will simple repeat the headline spend and point to greater student choice of institutions and programs.

Playing the class war card

Weekend commentary on the presumed plan went for the easiest, if unlikely comparison, with  Seven News suggesting funding for the private sector meant the government wants Australian equivalents of Harvard. Labor spokesman Kim Carr it ”a class war in the classroom” According to Deanna Taylor from the National Union of Students’ “we don’t want to see a situation where students with the most money can buy a quality education.” Even before what look’s like the Minister’s unofficial announcement the National Tertiary Education Union was trying to switch attention from the Kemp-Norton report’s endorsement of demand driven funding to the possibility of increased student fees which president Jeannie Rea said would create a user-pays environment. “This is already available in the United States, especially with the packaging of online courses as a cheaper option, but where you can pay extra for some course advice, a chat with an academic, annotated assessment – or walk onto an actual campus,” she said. Ms Rea made the same point on Seven saying, “what happens if we end up with a situation where students are offered, ‘if you want to have a tutorial you’ll have to pay extra. If you want to actually see a course advisor where is your fee for service’. ”

All orchestrated?

On Friday La Trobe VC John Dewar joined the chorus of critics attacking opponents of letting private providers compete for Commonwealth Supported undergraduate places. For those of you who unaccountably missed The Australian on Anzac Day Professor Dewar quoted Universities Australia warning of “reputational risk” and “devastating consequences” from for-profits. At which point UA chief Belinda Robinson must have wondered what she must do to distance the organisation from assumptions it deplores profit. Certainly her first response to the Kemp Norton report’s call for private sector competition was accurate, if not entirely wise, telling The Australian, “in these times of fiscal constraint, there would be a number of taxpayers scratching their heads to understand the use of taxpayer funds to underpin the profits of commercially listed companies.” But she followed up with a carefully calibrated statement intended to calm things down. “Although universities are not opposed to even more competition, this represents a radical change to the ecology of Australian higher education and warrants further, deep and comprehensive analysis, including of any unintended or undesirable consequences.” And to make sure everybody got the message she issued another statement last week including “let’s underscore the point, UA is not opposed to further competition in the higher education sector.” And yet the commentary continued, with Professor Dewar following other VCs, notably U Adelaide’s Warren Bebbington who called for deregulation and US style teaching only colleges last week, a suggestion Mr Pyne almost immediately endorsed, and the University of Melbourne’s Glyn Davis who spoke up for competition. Only a cynic would suggest that this was all orchestrated – but there were a few of them about yesterday suggesting precisely that – and what a surprise, Minister Pyne approvingly quotes both Bebbington and Davis in the London speech.

Engineering demand

The University of New South Wales launches its first MOOC today, an introduction to systems engineering by ADFA academics Michael Ryan and Ian Faulconbridge. The pair already offer a short in-person professional development course on the same subject but this new version will reach an enormous audience – UNSW says it starts with 20 000 enrolments. Even with all the carping caveats (attrition, participation by people with degrees and etc.) it is yet another demonstration that the demand for MOOCs is out there.

 Task for TEQSA

The astute Andrew Dempster was on the money when he filed an oped to the AFR last week on the need for rigorous regulation of open education markets, (it’s in the Fin this morning). Gosh, I wonder whether all of TEQSA’s critics will still want less bureaucratic oversight now that a mass of private sector providers is possible. Certainly Mr Pyne  appeals to self-regulation in the London speech,  “the onus is also on us to trust educators to know their work — to leave them the space to achieve excellence by working in partnership with their students, communities, staff, and other institutions.”

Know something the world needs to know? Anonymity guaranteed but lots of questions asked, stephen4@hotkey.net.au