Tuesday, May 15, 2007

masterclass, my ass

I was surprised to see The Australian declare the Budget a ‘masterclass’ the other day, because on the same front page several of its writers mentioned how Costello had ‘stolen’ and ‘pinched’ the idea from Rudd. It's a weird 'masterclass' that indulges cheating and doing homework the night before it's due, which is what this Howard Government's 'revolution' amounts to. (Saucy Julie Bishop was tightlipped this time, with no cracks of the wit about naughty boys and copycats.)
What is so revolutionary about the Howard Government‘s Budget? Paul Kelly, who endorses the Budget as a “tactical masterstroke”, claims it is revolutionary because the Liberals have finally decided to take education seriously. This “permanent change in Coalition priorities” is apparently evidence of a newly-contrived ability to engage in “long-range thinking”. So, in their eleventh year of rule, they have come to realise that education is important? Good on them. Do they want a medal or a chest to pin it on?
We expected them to lean on the states to enforce compliance and sure enough they are. What's scarier are the more insidious power grabs. The policy is vague on details like, how are they going to decide who's worthy. John Howard has a go at nutting it out, but even he doesn't sound sure:

Mr Howard said the $5 billion would go into a fund to be managed by a group called the Guardians of the Future Fund, chaired by former Commonwealth Bank head David Murray. He said it would invest the money and distribute proceeds on a competitive tender basis, possibly giving priority to universities proposing to match fund money with that from private sources, attracting tax deductibility.
“We will get a group of advisers on university matters, spiced with some financial experts to advise the education minister, who I imagine will discuss it with me and other senior ministers. The Government will make the final decision. “

And I imagine all these groups will be "spiced with" Conservatives. So, who’s electing the board of the Guardians of the Future Fund again? Who are the advisors gonna be ?(Kevin Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire, come on down!) Same with the Summer Schools. These sound a bit suss. Says Bishop, “Teachers will be selected by the federal government from a pool nominated by government and non-government schools...the programs would be run by top tertiary educators and would provide up-to-date training based on new research”. Wonder what the criteria are, and who these shadowy educators are again (Ken and Kevin, I'm watching you!).
Can we really expect the Howard Government to make ideologically-unbiased decisions about merit when it so closely controls the flow of funds? And it wants still more control over funds. Simon Marginson noted,
Another item slipped into the budget package indicates that the Government will ask the states to hand over their legislative powers over university finance. If they do not this voluntarily, says the minister, the Federal Government can seize control via its corporations power, which was confirmed last November by the High Court. This would allow the Government to decide entry into the university market and to dictate what public universities do - by shaping academic priorities, for example.

I love how they keep using that line: "Do this, or we'll make you. It's your choice."
Worst of all is the sheer trickery. As Simon Marginson detailed in the Herald yesterday, this Budget is words, words, words signifying nothing. Oh sure it hands over five billion bucks to unis!
HEEF is not a $5 billion investment in education. It is an investment in a capital fund. As the Treasurer, Peter Costello, said on budget night, the capital will not be spent. It remains part of the surplus, making future governments look good. What goes to the universities will be the earnings from the capital, an estimated $304 million a year. That's a 5 per cent increase on the $6 billion the Government spends each year on universities. Along with another $181 million in new funding in the budget, it will make a real difference. But it is no education revolution. All the Government has done is restore the cuts made to annual operating funds it made in the three years after it was first elected in 1996.

Truly, big deal.

Crossposted at Surfdom, where I also added this post today. (Oh, and I forgot to mention, a while ago, this one.)