Labor Turns Gonski Gold Into Lead

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Last week I wrote about finally being able to enjoy a real policy debate on the NBN. This week, we're getting plenty of policy debate. But it's a debate many in the university sector are finding uncomfortable.

That's because Labor has decided to pay for part of its Gonski schools funding reforms by cuts to university funding. The cuts, worth around $2.3 billion over the forward estimates, will help the government find the approximately $14.5 billion over six years it is offering the states and territories.

The long-awaited formula for the Gonski reforms has finally been decided on. And it's very much a recognition of what the original Gonski review recommended: a per student formula based on need, combining state and federal funding to produce a single “schooling resource standard”. The all important numbers, according to the government, will be $9271 per primary school student and $12,193 per high school student.  

If we shield our eyes from the wearying pyrotechnics of the last few days, it's clear that this is a significant milestone on the way to better schools. Labor has crunched the numbers and come up with a formula that will slowly transform our schools systems. By allocating resources in relation to need, the new system represents fundamental reform of the old patchwork quilt of public, Catholic and independent systems across eight states and territories.

Whether this is a new dawn or simply a faint glimmer on the horizon remains to be seen, however. The Government needs more than just money from the states and territories, as hard as this will be for many to cough up. It also needs to cajole them into a consensus agreement on the new system.

As School Education Minister Peter Garrett has found, getting eight premiers and chief ministers to agree on anything is never easy. A fine balance will have to be found between the deadly sins of greed and envy. The new funding will act like a top-up to the funding level per student reflected in the schooling resource standard. The eastern states of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland have rather a lot of under-funded schools. They will get many billions. Western Australia, on the other hand, is already a generous funder of its schools. It gets a paltry $300 million. No wonder Colin Barnett has been denouncing the proposal as a “terrible deal” for the west.

Will Gonski get over the line? At this stage it looks very doubtful. There are cross-cutting political issues at play. The conservative state premiers will be tempted by the money. But they will no doubt find a bit of Canberra-bashing irresistible, especially when their current opponent is wounded and seemingly headed for defeat. Campbell Newman has already cried poor, saying Queensland doesn't have the money, while Barry O'Farrell has signalled only that he would “consider” the proposal and won't be signing up at this Friday's Council of Australian Governments meeting.

For its part, the federal Opposition remains viscerally opposed to the reforms. Education spokesman Christopher Pyne issued a typically hyperbolic media release, calling the new funding proposal a “con-ski” and attacking the government's figures. Pyne says that unless the Gillard Government can get a binding agreement from all the states and territories, an incoming Abbott government would junk the reforms.

What should have been a defining moment in the election year was handled poorly. News of the university cuts actually filtered out before the big $14 billion announcement of Gonski funding itself, drawing a storm of criticism from vice-chancellors and university students. The scope of the tertiary cuts are actually fairly minor – although they'll certainly hurt – but the politics of cutting one part of the education system to fund another are terrible. You'd expect the politics of education to play to Labor's strengths, but perhaps this wounded government simply lacks the tactical nous to win a policy battle – any policy battle.

If Labor was ever going to sell these reforms effectively, it needed to make the story all about better schools. Instead, by linking the schools reforms to university cuts, it has managed to muddy the waters as well as anger an important part of its own base. After the damaging announcement started to resonate on Saturday night, Craig Emerson's office released a graph to try and assuage the sector's concern. It shows that university funding will continue to increase, just not as quickly. But critics pointed out that the graph, expressed in nominal dollars, doesn't take inflation into account, let alone the rapidly rising costs of higher education globally.

The government is of course right to point to big increases in university funding since taking office in 2007. But this extra funding has been achieved largely by uncapping student places, flooding the sector with more pupils. Funding levels per student have actually fallen since 2008. When former Tertiary Education Minister Chris Evans commissioned a review into this issue, a panel chaired by Jane Lomax-Smith reported back with a recommendation for an across-the-board increase in base funding per student of 10 per cent. The government peremptorily ignored this recommendation.

Instead, Saturday's announcement of an “efficiency dividend” subtracts a further 2 and 1.25 per cent in coming years from that funding stream. In other words, at the very time the Government is trumpeting an increase in funding per student for schools, it is cutting funding per student in universities.

There are legitimate debates worth having about the relative share of government resources devoted to different stages of education. Schools, which after all teach many more students than universities do, surely deserve more funding in any balanced national education policy. In fact, the most money should probably be devoted to the start of life, where all the best sociological research shows that early intervention and early childhood education programs can reap the greatest social return from government spending.

But the Government is not engaging in a mature debate about educational priorities. It is ripping money out of higher education with no consultation and with little apparent consistency with its own policy of expanding higher education to ensure than two-fifths of Australians hold a Bachelors degree by 2025. The Greens have pointed out that the Government could fund the Gonski reforms almost entirely by abolishing all the remaining federal fossil fuel subsidies, and by getting the mining tax to deliver on its stated purpose.

If new money needed to be found, it could have been found within education, from the amazingly generous subsidies to private schools that are now baked into the system going forward. Under the new schools funding proposal, the federal government will still be giving more funding to private schools than it will to public universities. Did any spending need to be cut anyway? The Government will still deliver a big deficit in May. Politically, it's hard to see what the advantage is in robbing Peter to pay Paul.

As Geoffrey Robinson points out today in The Conversation, education is one of the ALP's last remaining core values. Yet even here, it is struggling to deliver a coherent message. The result, Robinson concludes, is a “vicious circle” of dashed expectations and policy defeat.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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