Let's hear more from Pyne on 'chalk and talk' teaching
From the ultra modern, to a hint of nostalgia. Universities have become the latest ''stakeholder'' in this desperately cluttered era of political communication to go direct to the public with a campaign to convince voters to persuade federal politicians to boost funding for higher education.
And the Coalition's education spokesman, Christopher Pyne, is hankering for some old-fashioned teaching in the classroom: more ''chalk and talk'', less of the child-centred learning that he contends has ''dominated'' modern education thinking.
Let's consider universities first.
The higher education sector has renewed its plea for an increase in indexed base funding. Professor Glyn Davis, in his capacity as chairman of Universities Australia, has called for a 2.5 per cent annual increase over the next five years.
Davis also announced an advertising campaign, budget $5 million, to ''engage Australians in a conversation about how universities can contribute to a more prosperous and intellectually vibrant Australia'' - which is a very polite way of saying ''universities deserve more of your tax dollar''.
Once upon a time a big interest group could just rely on what professional communicators call ''the free media'' to run the case. By that I mean there would be extensive coverage in the lead-up to the May budget about the merits (and otherwise) of a funding increase.
Of course, it remains the case that this and associated issues will be well canvassed. Education remains an important ''consumer'' focus for newspapers; higher education has supplements in several newspapers; and education reporters are usually guns in their field.
But everyone working in communications these days would observe that it is harder to get your message out cleanly. People are bombarded by content of one type or another.
The federal government has effectively locked the door on more funding any time soon. The new Tertiary Education Minister, Chris Bowen, says no. His predecessor, Chris Evans, said no. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott fronted the sector to inform them that ''in a constrained budget environment, to avoid further cuts rather than to win higher funding is often the best outcome that particular sectors can hope for''.
Given that reality, the best hope is a workaround - some direct marketing to engage the public, and persuade them to pressure politicians for a different outcome. As Davis noted of his new campaign, quoting the ''newly fashionable'' Abraham Lincoln: ''With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.''
Davis, however, was at pains to note that universities were not intending any overt politics with this campaign. The ads would stop as soon as the election writs were issued later this year. And no public or student funds would be used to bankroll the sortie.
The ads are clearly not party political; and an ad spend of $5 million is modest in the grand scheme of things. But the resort to advocacy of this nature is part of a growing trend in third-party lobbying in this country. Lobbying is coming out of the back room and into the lounge room. We are moving, inexorably, towards an American-style political action committee system where interest groups with sufficient resources to intervene in political debates do so regularly.
Some of the interventions will be polite, measured and little more than consciousness raising, like the universities. Some will be loud, like the ACTU's campaign against WorkChoices, which established the prototype; or the campaign by the miners against the resources tax.
It seems impossible to get any directed thinking or consensus in political circles on how this type of activity either should or could be countered. We seem destined to drift in increments to the new reality where those who can campaign, and those who can't get lost in the cacophony.
Now to Christopher Pyne and his concern about child-centred learning. Hearing Pyne talk more extensively about his portfolio (hooray) made me nostalgic for some of my best teachers who made me sit on my backside, stop talking and write notes until my hand ached.
The Coalition's aversion to new taxes means Pyne has no significant money to play with, so the discussion must centre on values. His concern is with teaching standards: ''more didactic teaching methods . . . rather than the child-centred learning that has dominated the system for the last 20, 30 or 40 years''. A robust curriculum, principal autonomy and more traditional pedagogy. Hear hear, chorus parents who fear modern schooling has all gone to pot (and who are, of course, the target of his political message).
I think Pyne is creating a false dichotomy. The best teachers reach kids by whatever workable method, and, given the span of abilities and proclivities in any given classroom, flexibility is important.
Labor, in my view, has done good and gutsy things in education, particularly the transparency agenda. Proper funding is essential. But I think Pyne is right on this point: standards and methods in education matter too. I hope we hear more of substance from him on these issues in the months to come.
Katharine Murphy is national affairs correspondent of The Age.