Christopher Pyne's Education Lessons

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Christopher Pyne is a critical player in the Abbott government.

The Member for Sturt has long been a key factional player in the Liberal Party nationally, controlling much of the South Australian branch and wielding considerable factional influence across the federal party room.

Now, as Education Minister, Pyne has one of Tony Abbott’s most sensitive portfolios. Abbott’s new cabinet structure gives Pyne huge power: by folding all the various education portfolios into one mega-department, Pyne is responsible for everything from kindergarten to universities. This includes the perennially controversial issue of schools funding: Pyne will be responsible for shaping the Coaliton’s response to Labor’s Gonski reforms, which are worth tens of billions in terms of future Commonwealth spending.

Labor’s defeat left the Gonski egg half scrambled. The key legislation passed the Parliament, extra money is budgeted in the forward estimates, and key states like New South Wales have signed agreements with Canberra committing the Commonwealth to complex and pricey schools funding arrangements. Working out what to do with schools policy will be no small challenge for Pyne, who is not known for his diplomacy or negotiation skills.

Pyne’s portfolio also puts him in charge of higher education and universities, and it’s in this capacity that the Education Minister has ruffled some feathers. In an interview yesterday with the ABC, Pyne let slip he is considering re-imposing a cap on university places, a move that would have huge implications for the university sector.   

“We will put quality in tertiary education as our number one priority,” he told the ABC’s Matt Abraham and David Bevan. “And that means we need to review the demand driven system of university places because there is some evidence — and the previous government, and Kim Carr was the minister, had a similar view — there is some evidence that quality is suffering to achieve quantity.”

Pyne’s announcement that university places might again be capped sent a shiver up the spine of Vice-Chancellors, many of whom are running billion-dollar businesses with decidedly uncertain futures.

The new deregulated era has rewarded some institutions and punished others. The system is in flux and the shape of the system after the shake-out is still somewhat mysterious. Mid-tier universities appear to have prospered, as they have been able to enroll the surplus student demand unleashed by the new funding. On the other hand, some lower-ranked and regional universities appear to be struggling, as more prestigious universities have been able to offer more places and effectively out-compete them for students.

Re-capping student places would shuffle the deck of cards again, giving some universities better outcomes, but condemning others to real hardship. Some Vice-Chancellors have made risky bets with their expansion strategy, essentially gambling that the demand-driven system would ensure rising revenues for the medium-term. Pyne’s proposal amounts to a threat to turn off the spigot in mid-stream. Some universities that are already running deficits could soon find themselves in real trouble. 

Labor took an expansionary view of university policy, particularly under Julia Gillard and Kim Carr. As minister, Gillard commissioned the Bradley Review, which recommended that Australia should aim to get 40 per cent of the nation’s 25-34 year olds holding degrees by 2025. To do this, Canberra freed up university planning. Instead of setting broad quotas that mandated which and how many degrees were on offer across Australia’s universities, Labor uncapped (pdf) the places. Canberra told the universities it would fund every student that wanted to enroll.

Enrollments have soared, as universities have rushed to enroll many more students. Around 190,000 more students are going to university now than under John Howard. Because growing their student bodies is the only way they can grow their revenues, universities are packing more and more students into their existing facilities, with sometimes uneven results.

This has been a boon for hundreds of thousands of younger Australians, many of whom are the first generation of their family to access higher education. Most of the longitudinal data agrees that for an individual, getting a university degree is a passport to higher salaries and better standard of life. A better educated workforce is also good for Australia’s long-term productivity. Many industries are increasingly knowledge-based; intellectual enquiry and technical facility are the bedrock of new products and services.

But cramming in all those extra students has strained the current system. Few doubt that quality has suffered. University students today only rarely benefit from small class teaching or full-time university teachers. Increasingly, undergraduate classes are being taught by an army of under-paid and insecure casuals, a shadow collegiate of precarious tutors and sessional lecturers with less support from their institutions. The only effective remedy, an increase in funding levels – recommended by another Labor review chaired by Jane Lomax-Smith – was rejected by the former government as too costly.

In other words, there is some real substance to Pyne’s concerns about quality.

The trouble is, taking back control of university enrollments won’t necessarily lead to more quality. It could even make things worse, because unless funding-per-student is increased, a cut or freeze to places effectively equals a cut in overall funding. Acting Labor Opposition Leader Chris Bowen was right on the money when he said yesterday that “if you abolish the demand-driven system you are cutting university funding”.

Bowen, who has performed rather well in the fiill-in role since inheriting it after the election, has been telling all and sundry that Christopher Pyne’s remarks amount to a broken promise. In the lead-up to the election, Pyne had explicitly stated that he would not recap student places, even putting out a media release to that effect last year. It was entitled: “Coalition will not cap places or raise HECS.”

“That clearly wasn't in their savings pre-election,” Bowen continued yesterday, “and in fact we were told time and time again that education wouldn't be cut. Guess what? Universities are education and abolishing the demand-driven system is a massive cut to university funding.”

Pyne’s intervention and its resulting broken promise appear to have led to some consternation in the prime ministerial offices. New media instructions have been sent out to cabinet ministers, telling them they are not allowed to give certain types of interviews without approval from the top. Perhaps that’s a reaction to Pyne’s remarks this week, or perhaps it’s all part of a plan to dial back the media profile of the new government in general.

Whatever the motivation, Pyne’s thoughts on university policy are now out there and a topic of considerable debate. They are more than a gaffe or a thought bubble: the new Minister has signalled concrete policy intentions, including killing off Labor’s 40 per cent graduate target. That’s a pretty stark warning for the university sector that universities will not be allowed to grow unchecked. It seems almost inevitable that university funding will be crimped, if not actively reduced, in coming budgets.

While a broken promise is not a great look only a fortnight after taking office, the real damage may turn out to be to universities. For the sector, it’s something a disaster. Australia’s university system is far from stable. Pyne may find that capping places causes considerable political pain. Large job cuts and industrial unrest on campuses could also pose some nasty political challenges for the Education Minister. There may also be fiscal consequences down the track – for instance if a regional university gets into trouble, requiring an expensive bailout.

That’s why being in government is hard. Decisions have consequences. Complex portfolios inevitably contain booby-traps and pitfalls for inexperienced ministers – of which Christopher Pyne is certainly one. Should he get university policy wrong, broken promises could be the least of Pyne’s problems.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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