An OZ Higher Education Revolution?

Even though I am currently in Europe – the Netherlands and Portugal to be exact – I have been following the developments Down Under closely. The victory of Kevin Rudd and his Labor Party cannot exactly be called a surprise, with Labor having led the polls ever since Rudd became leader of the opposition. But what is the meaning of this new leadership for Australian higher education? Will Rudd’s election really bring about the ‘Education Revolution’ that he promised?

First of all, I’m happy that there is a change! After more than 11 years of Howard’s policies, it felt like any change was welcome. But what change is Rudd’s education revolution going to bring? Until a week before the election, Labor’s education revolution has remained full of empty rhetoric. It took until the 14th of November to unveil the plans for the revolution, but I had serious doubt whether these plans could be termed a ‘revolution’. No far reaching changes were proposed for the education revolution, at east not for higher education. The ‘revolution’ basically  was limited to some fellowships and an expansion of the scholarship programme.

One other issue in the Labor agenda was the abolishment of full-fee undergraduate places at public universities. Although this might fall nicely in the Labor tradition, it remains to be seen what it’s effects will be. Andrew Norton and others point to a few issues that need to be raised in this respect.  First of all, the compensation universities will get for this will not cover the loss of income. A possible result of this would be that the universities are even more exposed to pressures to recruit international students and become even more dependent on this market. Not something the Australian universities need at this point in time. And in addition it might even lead to further skill shortages if the self funded places are not replaced by government funded places. Or as Norton puts it:

if Labor in power did not swap those full-fee places with funded places, skills shortages could worsen and universities left with spare capacity would try to recruit foreign students. These would be strange outcomes for a Labor policy advanced on equity grounds.

OK…so Labor’s education revolution has not exactly convinced me. And neither have Rudd’s actions after the elections. Next Monday, Labor’s deputy leader Julia Gillard will be sworn in as Minister for both Industrial Relations and for Education, the two most important issues in the Labor campaign. I can’t help to get the impression that this moves education to the background, an impression that seems to be shared by Australia’s universities.

But it’s not all skepticism here. I think there are two very positive aspects about Labor’s rudd-gillard election for Australian higher education. These are situated more in the symbolic meaning of Labor’s election than in it’s actual proposed policies. First, Labor’s election might restore the trust between the government and the academic community. I have frequently noticed the lack of trust and the way it stalls new reforms. Labor’s election just might restore this trust and open the door to new policies that are shared by the government as well as the (left leaning) academic community.

Secondly, Labor’s election might open the door to more cooperation between the state governments and universities. While state governments have been dominated by Labor, the Federal government consisted of a Liberal/National coalition in the past 11 years. Considering the animosity between these levels of governance and the fact that higher education in Australia is a federal responsibility, state governments have been wary of investing in universities. The new situation could motivate state governments to get more involved in higher education, without being suspicious of the federal government cutting funding in response. Especially in relation to the current discussion on the regional role of universities, more state-level involvement could provide new opportunities for Australian higher education.

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