Uni Efficiency Cuts Are On Trend

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Last week’s Budget treatment of the higher education sector provoked stern rebuke from the august Universities Australia. “These reductions”, the media release said, “will challenge the ability of universities to maintain the quality of education and research”.

The cuts will also “make it more difficult to put the nation’s budget back in black”. The chain of reasoning, which involved a feedback loop via “long-term economic prosperity”, was a little below the cogency we might expect from Universities Australia.

In truth, this was a tepid response to the latest round of cuts. Universities Australia purports to be the voice of higher education in general, but is actually what used to be called the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee. It’s the voice of university managers — and the managers are not thrown into despair or rage by these budget decisions.

One part of the package burdens students and their families, not the universities’ own budgets. The part that affects universities directly will strengthen the managers’ hand in enterprise bargaining with staff unions, so they will hope to recoup some of their loss anyway.

Nor was there much student outrage, though protest marches were attempted. There is a boiling-frog situation here. Over 30 years, charges to university students have risen outrageously, as the neoliberal conception of education as a private benefit delivered in a market has displaced the idea of education as a public benefit and citizen right. But the increase has been step by step, so each generation of students meets only a small increment over what they already know to be normal.

The Government took care to put the higher education cuts in the context of proposed school education increases, the Gonski reforms – thus setting education unions against each other. This is sleight of hand; in the Budget context, a cut in any area could be balanced against rises elsewhere. But it was effective.

The Government further wrapped the whole deal in its characteristic small-lie cotton wool: “Delivering excellence in education”, according to its media release. The Government trumpets the proposed – but speculative – increase in funding resulting from the “uncapping” of undergraduate student places across the system, and has a pretty graph showing how the “estimates/projections” roar off into the sky.

Best of all was the stroke of genius that called the funding cut an “efficiency dividend”. I’m reminded of the classic definition in Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary: White, adj. and n.: Black.

What this actually means is that the Federal Government is expecting university staff to help solve the Budget problem by working harder, to teach the same number of students with less funding. Or, if the staff won’t do that, it’s expecting university students to help solve the Budget problem by putting up with less (or worse) teaching, for the same amount of fees.

Either way, university managers don’t much care. That is what they have been trying to get the staff and students to do for the last 30 years. Indeed, student/staff ratios have worsened markedly in Australian universities in the past generation. Though our managers are complacent about that, nobody else on campus is in much doubt that the overall quality of university education, far from delivering excellence, has been declining in this time. The expansion of student numbers, an important social gain, has been bought by successive governments on the cheap. They are still trying to do that, while denying that is what they are doing.

A Budget is of course a collective document, the work of many hands, with Wayne Swan taking the lead role in its presentation. I can’t help seeing Julia Gillard’s hand in this, however. In her time as education minister she introduced and trumpeted MySchool, a culminating moment in the neoliberal transformation of Australian school policy. In this system, every school in the country is represented as a firm competing against all others, with test results as the metric, and parents were directly invited by Gillard to harass teachers who don’t get pleasing test results. (Note MySchool, not Our Schools.) The Gonski reforms themselves are in a neoliberal vein, as you may expect if you ask a businessman to make education policy.

Federal higher education policy has similarly constructed universities as firms competing against each other, and students as market-oriented purchasers of education services. In this sense – another ratcheting up of the fee load on students, another sinking of direct public funding to universities – this Budget is entirely on trend with higher education policy since Dawkins.

The people most harmed by these shifts will be working-class students, who have most difficulty funding university attendance and are most marginal to academic culture. I’m glad to see this point was made by the managers of Victoria University. It won’t worry Tony Abbott.

New Matilda

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