Deregulation special: the state of the debate

Cross Chris

“Is Christopher Pyne mad?” the National Tertiary Education Union’s Paul Kniest asked yesterday. My guess is it takes more than criticism of his funding reforms to ruffle the placid Pyne.

Predictably polished Pyne

The Education Minister produced a predictably polished speech at the National Press Club yesterday – making the case for deregulation he has already made dozens of times but advancing the argument only incrementally. It was another example of the First Law of Case Making – when a minister has presented an argument so many times that he/she thinks audiences in Andromeda are sick of hearing it the message is just getting through to people on the same planet. Nonetheless Mr Pyne presented his points with an impressive enthusiasm – more people should access higher education, graduates should pay more for their degrees and the taxpayer less and universities and students will benefit from fee deregulation, the former by making money and the latter by a choice of courses and costs.

As to how much, or little, of the package the Senate will pass Mr Pyne played a straight bat, except when he didn’t. Yes he wants the whole package to pass, there are too many interconnected moving parts to take bits out. But then again he is prepared to negotiate. “Inevitably things change in negotiations, if we have to give up parts to get reform through then that will happen. I live in the real world,” he said. But which bits? “I’m not going to signal which parts of the package are open to negotiation,” he added, although tying interest on student loans to the Commonwealth bond rate came up in his speech and in questions.

When everybody isn’t a winner

One question that wasn’t put to Mr Pyne yesterday is how he feels about the prospect of a deregulated higher education system functioning as markets are supposed to, with some participants succeeding and others failing – which means a public university could go broke and have to merge, or close. In the immortal words of Stewie Griffin – I’m just asking.

Professionally packaged

Deregulation may be the only debate in town but Mr Pyne also signalled a couple of other issues yesterday. The Craven Review on teacher education is due by year’s end and an inquiry into research infrastructure will be announced in a couple of months. But what of the reviews that the world waits on, the Dewar working party on legislation and finance and the Shergold deregulation and redtape panel? While all is quiet on both counts there is a sense around the traps that both are well on the way to getting the hard stuff sorted. In fact there is something approaching a sense of confidence among friends of reform that the government will have a coherent story to sell the Senate in coming months. Question is, will senators be buying.

Parker predicts

ANU’s Ian Young was among the higher education elite at the Press Club yesterday but observers looked in vain for the University of Canberra’s Stephen Parker. Perhaps, I thought, Professor Parker had a clashing coaching session with UC’s rugby, soccer, basketball, croquet or quidditch franchises (alright I made the croquet team up.)

But no, he was writing a carefully constructed reply to Mr Pyne’s plan, rejecting an increase in undergraduate fees, suggesting that the claim of 80 000 new students is improbably high and warning that Australia could end up with more graduates than the economy needs. “An earlier generation of vice-chancellors would have stood up for students. I say, reject the whole set of proposals, on their behalf, and then let’s talk.” Hard to see about what, given Professor Parker has rejected the whole premise of the Pyne plan.

But Popular Front fractures

Even with Professor Parker’s passion the Popular Front against Pyne is certainly less solid than it was a week back. In a strategic statement before the minister’s speech yesterday Universities Australia chief Belinda Robinson suspended UA’s vow of silence to get stuck into Labor for opposing the Pyne reforms, suggesting that if there is less public money then it is a bit rich to oppose universities putting the bite on students. She went further after Mr Pyne’s speech arguing areas he should talk to senators about are the size of the 20 per cent cut to funding for Commonwealth Supported Places, “improving the fairness” of the student loan system (my guess is that this means the Group of Eight should subsidise regional campuses) and “a package to address potential market failures.” This is starting to look like a negotiating position to me.

As well as to Labor and the NTEU. The union was ropeable at Ms Robinson’s first remarks. “Contrary to claims from Universities Australia and Christopher Pyne, there is an alternative to the sweeping and unfair changes to higher education proposed by the Abbott Government: better funding,” fumed National President Jeannie Rea. “There is a moral issue at stake here – it’s about the future of Australia. Labor believes in the right to fair access to a university degree and we believe the Government should not be let off the hook for the responsibility to provide that, with proper funding,” spokesman Senator Kim Carr added.

Fair points which may yet convince the cross-bench in the Senate– but that the comrades have to make them in reply to influential university lobbyists demonstrates the winds are shifting in the direction of deregulation.

TAFE in trouble

Opponents of deregulation seized on the Victorian Auditor General’s report on the tribulations of TAFE yesterday as evidence of how markets muck education up. The 2012 changes, which created competition between private providers and the 14 TAFEs and 13 controlled entities, led to five being at high and eight at medium financial risk. “Many TAFEs have yet to effectively adapt to changes to the funding model …While a majority of TAFEs reduced their expenditure during the year, the cost reductions and increases in student fee revenue were still not sufficient to offset reductions in the level of operating funds secured from government. Consequently, there was a significant decline in the financial sustainability of the sector,” the AG warns. Is this due to a badly designed market or inept administration? Bit of both.

Big business

There were reports yesterday that education had slipped to fourth place as the source of national exports, (replaced by gas) but it is still an indispensable source of income, and certainly Australia’s most value-added product. And without it Australian universities go broke, as numbers from Australian Education International for 2013 demonstrate. The University of Melbourne has 14 000 international students, an enormous corps of customers, but it is Federation U that is really, really reliant on exports – last year 43 per cent of its students were from overseas.

MIT on the march

Be afraid, be very afraid, wherever you are in the world if you teach what MIT teaches the Massachusetts Institute of Technology wants a piece of your business. A new report proposes extending and expanding what the MITx MOOC model offers and to start charging and certifying courses.

Increasingly, employers are focusing on certifying an employee’s or potential employee’s competencies rather than relying on his or her formal degree. Badging is another new trend in certification—a badge is essentially recognition for a smaller module of learning. These new ways of thinking about certification tie in with the opportunities created by MITx. While learning for personal improvement is valuable, there is untapped potential to explore new opportunities to certify that learning. This might take several forms, three of which the Task Force believes are ready for immediate attention and expansion.”

The Institute is already trialling certified courses in aeronautics, IT and supply chain management.

But wait, there’s more and its worse, or wonderful, depending on what you think of competition from MIT. The Institute proposes partnerships with universities, where MIT courses are taught via MITx to other universities students, with local academics using class time for questions and problem solving.

The winter winds of competition are coming.