Education earns govt interim A
Labor's commitment to and belief in the transformative power of education (with enabling policies to match) has been a notable feature of the party's two terms in government since 2007 - a fact voters are certain to be reminded of when the election is called later this year. That apparent zeal for reform and increased funding may have been one of the reasons the authors of the Higher Education Base Funding Review (commissioned by the Gillard government in October 2010) recommended that Labor boost its investment in the sector and commit to a triennial report on the state of the sector to ensure teaching quality and resourcing remained comparable with international systems and institutions.
The Gillard government accepted the review a year later, promptly announcing it would obtain other views from the sector to ''inform its response''. Tertiary Education Minister Chris Evans released that final response on Monday. Hardly surprisingly, given the long delay, he rejected its key recommendations that the base funding for each university place be increased and that the contributions of some students be raised to rectify inequities in the current system of higher education funding. Senator Evans said that given the government's ''record investment'' in recurrent and capital funding for universities since 2007, there would be no further increase ''at this stage''. He also ruled out raising student contributions, arguing that the government did not want ''greatly increased debt to burden young people well into their working lives''.
Senator Evans' arguments are well made. Governments may be adept at exaggerating the extent of their achievements, but the increase in higher education spending under Labor is virtually indisputable, as anyone who has witnessed the construction activity and the boom in student numbers at the Australian National University and the University of Canberra would attest. A report prepared by Ernst & Young last year, and cited by Senator Evans, also points to the fact that funding per university student place rose by about 10 per cent as a result of reforms undertaken by the Gillard government.
Aside from billions of dollars Labor says its has directed towards building or modernising research facilities, libraries and lecture halls across universities and TAFEs, its reforms have enabled more students, particularly from low socio-economic backgrounds, to attend university than ever. It's an achievement of which Labor is justifiably proud, and it is why Senator Evans had no compunction rejecting the proposal some student fees be increased.
The potential for significant intellectual, cultural and economic dividends to accrue to societies and nations which invest wisely in education is not in dispute, which is why Labor and the Coalition always stress their pro-education credentials. But the government is under pressure - like governments everywhere - to direct its limited resources to other pressing matters such as healthcare and welfare reform. This is undoubtedly one reason why it has hesitated in the face of this challenge to fine-tune and to increase higher education funding. The present economic climate is an added reason for caution.
It would be a mistake, however, for the government to disregard the rationale for the recommendations made by the Higher Education Base Funding Review. This was to ensure that Australian higher education was resourced to a level that would allow it to remain internationally competitive in terms of research and teaching. The other reason why governments should not stint when it comes to investing in universities is that higher education is likely to be transformed in coming years by the development of massive open online course platforms. Those countries that fail to recognise the implications of this coming revolution (and to cash in on its potential) risk being left behind by more nimble competitors.
Australia has a world-class university sector staffed by equally renowned researchers and teachers. Thanks in part to the introduction of innovative reforms such as the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (now called the Higher Education Loan Program) the sector is now open to Australians of all backgrounds. Some people lament this democratisation of university education, arguing it has led to lower standards, but the benefits - a smarter, more adaptable and productive workforce - cannot be denied. A university degree or a TAFE qualification is now obligatory for most young people, and if Australia is to prosper this participation rate must be increased. Finding the right funding model to enable that is a challenge future governments cannot continue to put off.