Pyne takes on another huge challenge

Reshuffle special

Prime Minister Abbott fixes one problem in education and training with yesterday’s ministerial changes. But he leaves another unaddressed.

Moving the training portfolio from industry under Ian Macfarlane to education under Christopher Pyne makes policy and political sense.

Post school content delivery distinctions are blurring – VET providers are moving into higher education, University of Canberra VC Stephen Parker has talked of an integrated K-doctorate provider. And Swinburne  University is signalling expansion into online VET next year. A core part of Mr Pyne’s deregulation plan is pathways, pre-university places for people who need preparation for university study.

And VET, far more than higher education, is in strife. Student starts are stagnating, at best, as young people accept the argument that only a degree can deliver a career rather than just a job.

Between 2009 and 2011 undergraduate numbers increased by 15 per cent, while publicly funded 15-19 year old VET students dropped 7 per cent. Apprentices and trainees bail from courses at rates up to 50 per cent.

The system is also Kafkaesque in its complexity – Minister Macfarlane slammed the Australian Skills Quality Authority last year, saying it “should be a regulator not a bookkeeper.

And then there is the private provider problem. Labor and the Greens are going after the non government sector, pointing to spivs gaming publicly funded places to explain the decline of the states’ TAFE systems. The coming Senate inquiry has terms of reference designed to pillory for-profits.

While Minister Macfarlane was working on training reform it makes sense for the minister who works with university leaders and state education and training ministers on most education issues to take over all of them – and that means Mr Pyne rightly has the job.

Which is a big one, especially on top of deregulating higher education, where success is no means assured. But win or lose on that one the prime minister obviously thinks Mr Pyne has the political skills, policy nous and endless capacity for work necessary to reform training as well.

But while Mr Abbott has correctly created a comprehensive education portfolio he has left an anomaly in research.

Mr Macfarlane is now minister for science, which only confirms what he was already doing – rolling out a major change to national policy, pushing for impact measures in science funding, urging a research emphasis on industry needs and focusing on funding areas where Australia is strong. With Chief Scientist Ian Chubb reporting to him Minister Macfarlane, was and continues in a position to set science strategy for a generation.

The problem is that to work, the Macfarlane model necessarily covers research funding that is not his to spend – notably the Australian Research Council’s budget, perhaps if he is feeling expansive some of the National Health and Medical Research Council’s as well.

 Mr Pyne has made supportive noises about Mr Macfarlane’s plan and he is unlikely to have time to argue now. But what the ARC, and all the academics outside the gilded applied research schedule, will make of the science minister’s strategy if it is applied to them is another question.

On balance Mr Macfarlane now has a much better chance of achieving his objectives while Mr Pyne has two enormous challenges where he had but one. Such is the price of enjoying  the prime minister’s confidence.

This is a special edition of CMM, daily issues resume on January 13.

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