Clash of titans: Pyne and Carr’s deregulation duel

Plus policy patriarch Kwong Lee Dow calls the debate

Ever the optimist

There is no faulting Greg Craven for finding the bright side. As Labor’s Kim Carr denounced deregulation in detail yesterday the Australian Catholic University VC was pleased the senator flat-out rejected suggestions that a cap on undergraduate places could be back on the agenda. With Education Minister Chris Pyne committed to demand-driven funding Professor Craven, welcomed their shared commitment to one of the “great bipartisan reforms in the history of Australian higher education policy.”

Um, but what about paying for it? “That is why ACU continues to encourage senators on both sides of the political divide to support the government’s plans for deregulating fees,” Professor Craven said. No harm in suggesting it.

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 Senator Carr’s rhetorical broadsword

Kim Carr delivered a fighting speech at the AFR’s higher education conference yesterday arguing two thirds of Australians believe Christopher Pyne’s “wrong and immoral” deregulation legislation is un-Australian, “the government has struck at a fundamental principle: the Aussie fair-go.”

He added it was up to government to further fund education because, “Australians recognise that students and their families already pay their fair share.”

How un-Australian? Sufficiently so it could well make Tony Abbott a one-term prime minister.

“The Abbott Government has come out of the blocks with a raft of punitive, cruel and insulting measures that reveal the contempt in which they hold ordinary Australians. And the people are on to them. … That is why Labor has committed to placing education, innovation and science at the centre of its case for re-election.”

Good-oh, but what happens if Labor wins next time? Well, for a start Senator Carr explicitly rejected suggestions floated by journalists yesterday of a cap on student places. And he claimed Canberra is obliged to hold universities accountable; “they are established for public purposes, under acts of all the federation’s parliaments. It is only right and proper that they be accountable to the public – not only for their funding, but for decades (in some cases over a century) of public investment.”

But while a Labor government would stick its bib in, at least it would bring money with it. Senator Carr added the party’s track record demonstrated it had funded universities properly the past and implied that it would do so in the future. “Governments need to recognise that maintaining a sustainable level of funding per EFTSU is key to a fair funding framework – one which nurtures a quality system. … Funding is sustainable if governments have the political will to make it so.”

Which Pyne parries

Where Senator Carr heaved a polemical broadsword Minister Pyne’s conference speech was a rhetorical rapier, quoting vice chancellors and commentators on the need for deregulation and arguing Labor had long ago established the political principle that students contribute to the cost of their courses.

“While the Fraser Government, with the distinguished education minister Sir John Carrick, tried to maintain a fee-free system in the face of major fiscal constraints, it fell to the Hawke Government in the 1980s to confront the increasingly unavoidable reality. Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, and education minister John Dawkins recognised the importance of sharing costs between taxpayers and students.”

And he argued that Labor’s uncapping of places had to be paid for, in ways that increased quality. There was nothing in the speech the minister has not said before – which was its most significant aspect. It is plain that while Mr Pyne will negotiate with the Senate crossbench, he will not abandon his package in the face of what he called “populist opportunism”. “Not only is Labor are standing in the way of this vital reform – but they have no credible policy alternative to offer.” The question for the senators was implicit but obvious in the address – do they believe that there is any such thing as a free lecture.

Adelaide chancellor

The University of Adelaide is to have a new chancellor; former state governor and retired rear admiral Kevin Scarce will replace Robert Hill next month.

Kwong’s considered call

Kwong Lee Dow is the policy patriarch of Australian higher education, a former vice chancellor involved in every significant debate for decades who only offers the most considered judgements. So his intervention in the higher education debate is immensely significant. “Historical trends suggest that deregulation of domestic undergraduate fees will come in Australia- perhaps not immediately, and perhaps by a stepwise mechanism. But it will happen, and fairly soon,” Professor Lee Dow will tell a Melbourne education quality assurance conference this morning.

His speech presents a close analysis of higher education regulation and funding since the Martin report and is far from a partisan endorsement of deregulation. In July Professor Lee Dow warned, “whatever finally emerges from the political machinations with the Senate, students will be paying significantly more, and rural and regional students will be disproportionately affected,” (Campus Morning Mail, July 28). He will present a similar warning this morning, saying, “without substantial ongoing assistance, deregulation won’t by itself help regional institutions.”

However he also calls for TAFE to be able to “offer appropriate higher education programmes” and for private providers to enter “the mainstream of Australian higher education provision”. “I would not support calls for delay as this seems a core part of the deregulation package.”

Keep calm and carry on

Whatever is going on at Murdoch, rank and file staff are embarrassed at the way people are alleging there are plots to prevent much needed change – there are suggestions that management is using allegations of misconduct to persecute opponents of reform. Really? Murdoch does not look much like Paris in the Terror. And the campus National Tertiary Education Union wants the people claiming there are plots to stop. Yesterday union branch president DAnne Price wrote to members supporting management’s commitment to process, “details of allegations that may prove to be unfounded have the potential to cause irreparable damage to the career of any individual concerned. For this reason the NTEU will also not speculate or comment publicly on the issue at this time.” And she made it plain that whoever is briefing the media that the process is partisan should cut it out. “The NTEU is particularly concerned at media reports that characterise those who may have expressed concerns about process or behaviour of some senior management as being opposed to reform.” So what should staff do? “Focus on the important work we do, and let the investigations take their natural path.”

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Dream team

The feds want a “social marketing strategy” to “assist universities to increase awareness of and raise aspiration to higher education.” The Department of Education will then roll out a (very modest) $2.5m campaign. I have no idea who will bid for the work, but I reckon I know who would be hard to beat if they formed a consortium, student recruitment marketers from Australian Catholic U, Federation U and Charles Sturt U. They all understand their markets and have variously produced creative that sells to young people who have little grasp of what university is about. Then again, maybe they would not want to share their expertise in a market that is going to get more competitive, with, or without deregulation – which raises a question Why should Canberra do what universities already do themselves.

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