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What will Abbott mean for universities?

When the Coalition waxes lyrical about higher education, they place a particular emphasis on tertiary education’s important role in a strong economy and its importance as Australia’s largest service export industry.

The Usyd Quadrangle has seen many an education policy come and go

I would warn you about the Coalition’s Higher Education policy… If I knew what it was.

The Usyd Quadrangle has seen many an education minister come and go
The Usyd Quadrangle has seen many an administration come and go

In 2011 Shadow Minister for Education Christopher Pyne spoke of the “reforming zeal” he and Shadow Minister for Universities and Research Brett Mason held towards higher education. If you want to find out what Pyne and Mason are so zealous about reforming, you’ve got your work cut out for you. Only one of the 42 policy documents the Coalition has released to the public, the “Coalition’s Policy for Schools”, deals in any way with university education.

The Coalition has promised to get the nation back to surplus. They will be doing this despite scrapping the mining tax and cutting Company Tax Rates, leaving a considerable number of “savings” (read: “cuts”) that a Coalition government would have to make to fulfil their promise. Some of these have already been announced, among them a cut to the Supplementary Allowance for the unemployed, students and parents with young children on income support. This will be worth $210 to individuals and $350 to couples.

Despite a return to surplus being a major platform of the Coalition, Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey has not yet been able to provide a year in which such a return would take place – with current Treasurer Chris Bowen maintaining Labor can provide a surplus by 2016 (though Labor have been wrong about that before, to say the least).

In fairness, a Coalition Higher Education policy does actually exist. One of its manifestations is the establishment of an “Online Higher Education Working Group”, a commission that will look at the future role of the internet in higher education. The Coalition seems particularly excited about the possible impacts the internet could have on Higher Education, especially its ability to “provide students with more flexible and affordable tertiary education”.

Online learning models, while providing much scope for innovation and creativity, could also be used as a pretext for the increasing casualisation of academic staff that we have already seen University management attempt to implement over the past couple of years. Submissions have already closed for the group, and if you’re wondering when you’ll get to see the results of that group’s deliberations, and the policy the Coalition decide to formulate on its basis, I wouldn’t recommend holding out for September 7.

The Coalition also promised yesterday to establish a Commission of Audit to review research grants proffered by the Australian Research Council. The Commission will “re-prioritise” around $900 million of research funding, citing individual examples of obscure research projects to justify these measures. There are already concerns that the current strict and independent guidelines under which research grants are allocated may be compromised by the Coalition’s political agenda. The Coalition is easily able to pigeonhole much academic research into its broader election focus on “waste”. This betrays a narrow view towards academia: while much research may seem arcane or irrelevant in the immediate future, scholarship depends upon a cumulative and co-operative endeavor undertaken across a wide range of fields. Academics do not work in a vacuum, they are constantly obliged to examine and build upon the work of their peers.

When the Coalition waxes lyrical about higher education, they place a particular emphasis on tertiary education’s important role in a strong economy and its importance as Australia’s largest service export industry. Though the “reforming zeal” of Pyne and Mason expresses itself in only a 150 word statement, that statement is worrying enough. Where will staff be left with the  Coalition’s commitment to “work with the sector to reduce the burden of red tape, regulation and reporting, freeing up the sector to concentrate on delivering results and services”? What will critics of the corporatisation of the University be up against if we have a government which focusses on working “with the sector to grow higher education as an export industry”?

You may have noticed another ghastly cliché insinuate itself into the discourse: “work with the sector”, which essentially means “work with the management”. It may well be that the most worrying thing of all is not that Pyne and Mason are infused with a “reforming zeal”, but that the cuts, the trend towards corporatisation and the adoption of a business model of tertiary education means that the Coalition will be perfectly happy with business as usual.


More on the federal election:

The advantages of being an election swinger – how to get the most out of your vote

Taking a microscope to the microparties – where your vote really goes

When voting for the Sex Party, use protection – what does the ASP stand for, and where are their preferences going?

The party without any candidates – the party started by USYD students

Australia First, minorities second – an interview with the Australia First candidate for Bennelong

Like father, like daughter – the role of politicians’ daughters in their campaigns


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