Viva La Evolution

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Wayne Swan delivered Labor’s entire election platform in education and training last night, plus an extra $500 million for the universities sector. The headline total of $19 billion sounds impressive – but Labor knows it has a long way to go to satisfy the demands of a sector largely ignored in John Howard’s eleven years of government.

Peter Costello’s Higher Education Endowment Fund will have another $5 billion tipped into it, and be renamed the Education Investment Fund, which will now expand its scope to include investments in schools and the Vocational, Education and Training sector.

From an "evidence-based policy" perspective, perhaps the most rigorous spending commitments were those in early childhood, particularly the pledge to fund hundreds of new early childhood education centres across the country. There’s money for training early childhood educators, $20.2 million (including existing funding of $2.8 million) over five years to roll out the Australian Early Development Index (AEDI) nationally and a whopping $1.6 billion for the Child-Care Tax Rebate, which now increases to up to $7,500 annually. This measure is being sold by Lindsay Tanner and Julia Gillard as part of the Government’s productivity and participation agenda, with the aim of encouraging more mums into the workforce.

Election promises relating to schooling are also ticked off. The money for "trades centres" in high schools is delivered, including an extra top-up for information and communication technology in schools as part of the "digital education revolution". Also supported is Kevin Rudd’s cherished Asian languages funding, reversing one of the most near-sighted policy decisions of the Howard years.

There were the promised tax breaks for families spending money on their kids’ education, totalling up to $750 per child in primary school and $1500 per child in secondary school. This money will be delivered through Family Tax Benefit A, ironically entrenching one of the Howard government’s key family welfare payments. This will cost $4 billion over several years.

Swan’s commitment to delivering ALP election promises is a bigger problem for the higher education sector, which missed out on a meaningful increase in base funding. There was at least the promised funding to pay for the phase-out of full-fee domestic students, but at only $200 million, many will wonder if it’s going to be enough. A one-off $500 million fillip for university infrastructure looks suspiciously like a bribe to keep Vice-Chancellors quiet for a few months – and they’re now in such a desperate situation, it might work. But the sector misses out on a specific funding mechanism to address the collapse of student services in the wake of Voluntary Student Unionism, which will hurt.

All told, it’s a long way short of a "higher education revolution" – or indeed an education revolution of any sort. Real pressure for increased universities base funding will now be put on Julia Gillard in the run up to the release of the Bradley Report.

Nevertheless, this is indeed a strong education budget. Unlike the Howard government’s ideologically obsessed policies around Australian Technical Colleges, private schools and vouchers, it marks a welcome return to a belief in public investment in public education.

But more will need to be delivered in future budgets if the Rudd Government is to achieve even evolution in this sector, let alone lasting change.

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