What kind of government wants to silence universities, lawyers and journalists?
To understand how badly education sectors are hurt by the 2021/2022 federal budget it is necessary to be aware of one critical fact. That the government used a global pandemic to force through education cuts that could damage our country’s research capacity and knowledge economy for decades.
It was during the pandemic in 2020 that the government announced changes to tertiary funding that would make studying the humanities more expensive. It was during the pandemic in 2020 that the government tweaked jobkeeper payments to ensure that our public universities could not have access to the scheme. And it was during the pandemic in 2020 that the government took advantage of people’s fears to slip through cuts to public education and TAFE that will reduce the educational opportunities of our most vulnerable students.
These actions were taken in 2020 when worrying about more pressing everyday things didn’t leave people with a lot of bandwidth to tease out the problem. In the 2021/2022 budget the government didn’t have to do anything other than let those actions stand while announcing a range of education spending that was usefully vague.
How do Australian Universities work?
Just briefly, for those who are unfamiliar with the education sector. The way that Australia divides responsibilities for the education sector between the state governments and the federal government can be confusing. K-12 education is the responsibility of the states, while the federal government is responsible for pre-school and tertiary education. I am going to give people the benefit of the doubt and suggest we would all like to be sure that teachers in early learning, K-12, TAFE and universities are qualified to do their job. That they have the education necessary. So while our state governments take care of the day to day running of, and maintaining their schools and paying their staff, it is up to the federal government to ensure there are enough qualified teachers. That all states are facing critical shortages of qualified teachers is a situation that education bodies have been warning about for a very long time.
Regardless of the split in responsibility, both state and federal education is paid for out of your taxes.
We are fortunate in Australia that all our top tier universities are public. That is not the same in other countries. In the USA for instance, the top 3 universities in 2021, Harvard, Stanford and MIT are private. In the top 10 US universities ranked on that site, only 2 are public, University of California, Berkeley (UCB) and University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Of all the universities in Australia, there are only 4 which are private: Notre Dame University, Bond University, Torrens University and the University of Divinity.
Why does the government want to silence our Universities?
Maintaining Australian universities then is actually part of the federal government’s job. That is what we pay taxes for. Yet, the Liberal/National party went out of their way to stop our public universities from claiming JobKeeper in 2020, while making it available to private ones. In The Times Higher Education in July 2020, writer John Ross reported Scott Morrison as saying that universities were being treated like any other billion-dollar business, but that was blatantly untrue. As Ross pointed out, ‘the government specifically tweaked the rules to make sure universities could not benefit from the giant job subsidy scheme.’ The fact that the 4 private universities were eligible compounds the lie.
Our public universities, several which consistently rank in the top 100 globally, are not ‘like any other business’ expected to run on profits. Our public universities are for the education of our young people and the expansion of knowledge through research.
And keeping them active is the federal government’s job.
What happens to research?
The other thing to keep in mind is that universities now are very different to universities in the past. Initially the primary purpose of universities was research. The teaching component was research based. That is why academics are expected to be publishing regularly. And while the research purpose remains, the focus on teaching has grown. As we all know, research and teaching are different skill sets.
Australian universities have a proud history of research that has made the world a better place. The Black Box flight recorder was invented by chemist David Warren in 1958, while penicillin-based antibiotic medicines were developed during the 1930s by pharmacologist and pathologist Howard Florey and medical researcher Ernst Chain. Google maps, ultrasound scanners, Wi-Fi, electronic pacemakers and cochlear implants are only a few of the many inventions and discoveries supported by our universities. The more recent, but hugely significant HPV vaccine, which prevents cervical cancer and other HPV-related cancers was the result of researchers at the University of Queensland.
In a white paper published by Deakin University examining World-leading research in Australia’s universities while he was Minister for Education and Training, Simon Birmingham stated that ‘The health and wellbeing of millions of people around the world depends upon inventions and innovations from the leading-edge research developed within Australia’s world-class universities. Such high-quality research can help save lives, protect the environment, raise living standards, drive innovation and create the jobs of the future.’
So why has the government chosen to cut funding to universities at a time we may be hoping the researchers could come up with a covid vaccine?
Especially as another main source of funding, international student fees, has dried up.
In an article published on the 11th May 2020, the ABC’s Sabra Lane and Claudia Long claim that, along with the loss of revenue from international students, the cuts to funding could result in 21,000 job losses in 2020, about 7,000 of them in research related positions.
Frank Larkins and Ian Marshman wrote in September 2020 that the universities that will be hit the hardest are the Group of Eight universities: The University of Sydney, The University of Melbourne, UNSW, Monash University, The University of Queensland, Australian National University, The University of Western Australia and Adelaide University. These are the most research intensive, making up about 70% of the shortfall.
In June 2020, writing for the Conversation, Andrew Norton, Professor in the Practice of Higher Education Policy at ANU said that Australian universities had been very successful at building their research output in the past 15 years, but that these gains will be completely reversed under the proposed funding cuts.
As I said before, teaching and research are two different skills and have different financial models. The loss of research funding, and the subsequent drop in research positions, will force academics more into teaching roles, which are far less attractive or profitable. Norton predicted in 2020 that there would be an ‘estimated $4.7 billion gap between research revenue and spending.’ There is no way that that gap can be filled by teaching only and thus research funding will be pretty much decimated.
Surely we can see that this will mean that the brightest and best researchers will leave Australia for better opportunities overseas. And our universities will have to offer the courses that bring in the most profits in order to survive.
And when you think about it, the government can promise anything it wants in regards to getting more doctors or teachers or engineers, but if the university doesn’t have enough staff to teach the subjects then it’s not going to matter.
Gavin Moodie, Adjunct professor at RMIT University in Melbourne, in an article published in The Conversation, wrote in detail about the troubling relationship between conservative governments and research. The same Simon Birmingham who spoke eloquently about the importance of Australian university research took to Twitter in 2018 to make fun of one of the grants. They would prefer that research only involved things they cared about. Hence their disapproval of climate change research.
It is hard to understand the antipathy of the current LNP towards universities, especially given the plethora of degrees held by senior Liberals. You have to wonder how many of those they had to pay for.
It does seem that the conservatives liked universities a lot more before the Whitlam government made access available to most Australians. And though there are still many barriers to educational equality in this country, it is no longer the purview of only the elite. This does seem to be the sticking point. They would really like to see their children have a university education, yours, not so much.
I recommend reading the Moodie article.
So the cuts to university funding were already in place when the 2021/2022 budget was released. Any reference to emergency monies paid last year was disingenuous as those grants were not renewed this year. On the other hand, the government has allocated $26.1 million to non-university education providers to provide short course places for only 5,000 students in 2021.
Job-ready Graduates Package
The government’s solution to all our future economic woes is their Job-ready Graduates Package. According to the government’s own website this is going to revolutionise the whole tertiary sector.
It may, but it won’t be in a good way.
The point of the changes is to force students into courses that teach the skills that the government thinks that industry wants. They do this by making some courses cheaper for students and some more expensive. It is no surprise that STEM courses and mathematics are winners in this while humanities fare very badly. What they seem to have missed is the increasing body of evidence that shows that employers are more interested in the skills that are gained in the humanities.
As early as 2017, George Anders had discovered some interesting facts about what employers were looking for. It led him to write his book, You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education. In the book Anders talks about how “Uber was picking up psychology majors to deal with unhappy riders and drivers.” According to Anders, the skills that hiring managers wanted were communication skills and the ability to get along with people. His top three were creativity, curiosity and empathy.
In 2018, Microsoft president Brad Smith and EVP of AI and research, Harry Shum wrote in their book The Future Computed, that a critical discovery in Microsoft’s research into artificial intelligence is that lessons from liberal arts will be critical to unleashing the full potential of AI.
I wrote a couple of years ago about a group of IT graduates in Silicon Valley who claimed that it was not their coding skills that employers wanted, they already had plenty of those, it was a range of ‘soft skills.’ One of the young men spoke about how important ethics are going to be in the expansion of technology. He claims he learnt that in the humanities. This was further supported in 2020 when the World Economic Forum released the top 10 skills that employers will be looking for in 2025. They are:
- Analytical thinking
- Active learning
- Critical thinking
- Creativity and initiative
- Technology use
- Technology design
- Stress tolerance and flexibility
- Reasoning and ideation
Now I am not saying that you can’t pick up those skills in STEM or mathematics, but they are definitely the foundation of humanities courses.
I wonder whether we could apply the government’s own reasoning to their current jobs. Does Scott Morrison’s science degree make him ready to lead our country. How about the others. An education minister with an actual education degree and teaching experience would be a wonderful thing.
It is hard to fathom why Dan Tehan thought it would be a good idea to talk about the scheme in an address to the National Press Club in Canberra in June 2020. It takes a certain je ne sais quoi to stand before a roomful of journalists and say that you are devaluing their work and making it less appealing to students.
Because that is what we are talking about.
Joel Barnes, from the University of Technology Sydney wrote in July 2020 that many humanities courses would be 113% more expensive than they are now. On the other hand mathematics courses would drop by 62%.
The education editor at the Australian Financial Review Julie Hare wrote in March that Education Minister Alan Tudge was claiming that data from a number of universities showed students were ‘flocking’ to the government’s reduced fee courses. However people who actually know something about education claim that to be unlikely.
While there was an increase of 7 per cent in new enrollments, Andrew Norton believes that that is more likely to be because the universities were allowed to go over their caps, and the government had created 50,000 subsidised short courses. Both those things would not continue past 2021. Also while there has certainly been an increase in nursing and medical imaging courses, Norton claims that that would be expected during a global pandemic. Besides, the drop in course fee was only about $1700.
Hare also spoke with University of Canberra vice-chancellor Professor Paddy Nixon who said there had also been a surge of 44 per cent in applications to study law, ‘despite fees increasing to $14,500 from $6804.’
What about TAFE?
One would assume that the antipathy the conservatives feel towards universities would make them great supporters of the public alternative, TAFE. But alas, that is not the case. Again, the major damage was done in 2020 and this year’s budget just makes it worse.
Correna Haythorpe of the AEU points out that successive years of funding cuts have completely destroyed the TAFE sector’s ability to manage a ‘skills-based’ recovery. According to Haythorpe a third of ‘all TAFE campuses in Australia have closed down in the past seven years.”
Following the 2021/2022 budget release Julie Hare wrote about the government’s swing towards ‘skills’ based training. That would not be a surprise given the ‘job-ready’ policy. Much was made of increases to the number of apprenticeships that were going to be offered. Except that the $2.7 billion earmarked for the ‘Boosting Apprenticeship Commencements’ is a wage subsidy, paid to employers.
The question that needs to be asked is: where are those apprentices going to be trained?
Sadly, it is not a surprise that the government is bypassing our public TAFE sector and allocating this money to private training providers. The Greens Mehreen Faruqi, a former academic and environmental engineer, told Naaman Zhou, of The Guardian that the promised $500 million for the ‘JobTrainer scheme’ will be paid mostly to for-profit private vocational education providers.
Faruqi went on to say that the 2021/2022 budget reduced TAFE funding by 24%. It makes the government’s commitment to ‘skills training’ hollow.
As with universities, the greatest damage to TAFE was done prior to 2021. In June 2020 Brett Henebery warned that ‘130,000 fewer new apprenticeships and traineeships’ would be available as a result of Covid-19. He claimed that in April 2020 there had been a 50% reduction in new job ads for apprentices and trainees from the previous year. He went on to say that a new Mitchell Institute report shows ‘a 30% decline in new apprenticeships over the next three years.’
So the government’s announcements about new apprenticeships and traineeships in the 2021/2022 budget are designed to hide the fact they have decimated the public tertiary sector and it is likely that your child will not get one.
Much as they hid major cuts to education and training by releasing the worst of them during the pandemic in 2020, they are also hiding any details around the upcoming National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development (NASWD). They announced it was coming, but made no attempt to attach dollar values to it.
In a statement following the budget announcements, AEU Federal President Correna Haythorpe said that “The Morrison Government is delivering millions of dollars of taxpayers’ funds to poor quality private colleges and the job network at the expense of TAFE.
The one thing that we can be sure of, is that reduced tertiary offerings will guarantee a huge rise in youth unemployment as students are not provided with high quality, affordable training pathways.
Who are the losers?
The major losers of any education cuts are Australian students, their families and society at large.
No matter how you look at it, students are going to be paying more for less. Norton, in the previously referenced article, claims that the government is going to ensure that students take on increased levels of debt in order to get a qualification.
Most domestic students make use of the Higher Education Loans Program. (HELP) This allows them to study their preferred course and then pay back the amount of the loan over their working life. When they start work their salary has the HELP percentage taken, along with any tax payable from the gross amount.
One of the only aspects of university funding that is not capped is HELP loans. Norton shows that under the Job-ready Graduates Package announced in June 2020 HECS-HELP lending will go up as universities try to cover costs. That means students will begin their working life, if they can get a job, with a higher debt than before.
Norton accuses the government of being deliberately vague about how much money it will be lending through HELP, but claims that it is included in the $19 billion the treasurer says will be spent on tertiary education.
That is to say, the government is promising funding for education that students are going to have to pay back to them.
What none of the above tells us, is what effect it will have on the future health and welfare of our young people if they are forced into courses they are not interested in or good at.
What Courses are they afraid of?
As we know, the major cuts to funding are in the humanities. So, you have to ask, what professions are most affected by the cuts to humanities?
Obviously journalism, and psychology and oh, law, and politics and business. And despite what they are saying, teaching.
In a separate article in the Conversation in October 2020, Andrew Norton explained how the changes to funding models in the Job-ready Graduates program were designed to encourage students to study subjects that would meet ‘national priorities.’ Thus, the priorities of the current government.
It is no surprise that ‘arts courses are not a government national priority, so the student contribution for arts will more than double to A$14,500 a year. Law and business courses are not government priorities either and so go up from A$11,115 a year to A$14,500.’ In teaching and nursing the fees dropped from ‘A$6,684 in 2020 to A$3,950 in 2021’ which is reasonably substantial, though the cuts in engineering and IT are only from A$9,527 a year to A$7,950. Hardly enough to encourage students to make a life choice they were not previously going to make.
They still have no clue about education.
For those of us in education, the emphasis the government put on the importance of teaching is clearly hypocritical, or displays a total lack of understanding of how teachers are trained.
If you want your teachers to be subject specialists and provide a good education for students, they will need to study the subjects in their undergraduate degree. Unless of course you want maths to be the only subject that students study at school. Then you are ok.
And perhaps it would be an idea to make more money available for public education so that teachers could be paid better, or have extra support for students in school. I am sure they would prefer that to a small cut in the cost of their degree.
True to form though, the 2021/2022 budget shows nothing but more cuts to public education funds and increases to the private sector. But that is the topic for another time.
So, Arts, law and business graduates could leave their tertiary studies with a debt over A$40,000. For social workers or psychologists who don’t make a lot of money, that could take a very long time to pay back.
There is no doubt that conservative governments would like to see all our education institutions privatised. Much the same as it would like to see our health and security areas privatised. If they didn’t they wouldn’t be paying huge sums to private security firms to guard refugees on Manus and Christmas Islands. Our defence forces would be infinitely better qualified.
This is not new and the 2021/2022 budget merely reinforces this. The Courier Mail’s Natasha Bita pointed out that while our public universities, schools and TAFEs were going to have their funding slashed, private schools were going to get another $1.7 billion in federal grants next financial year.
She continued to say that while all schools will share in $24.4 billion spent next year, a bigger share of spending will go to private schools. Catholic and elite private schools will receive a massive $14.7 billion, up 13 per cent from 2020/21. This despite the fact they charge parents upward of $30,000 a year.
On the other hand, public schools, which educate two-thirds of Australian children will receive only $9.7 billion in federal funding.
Another thing that the budget hides is that in 2020/2021 private schools were allowed to draw on $815 million in advances to pay for higher costs; this was not provided for public schools.
Perhaps it is the politicians who are innumerate.
Following the 2021/2022 budget release, ABC reporter Conor Duffy spoke with Brian P. Schmidt, an Australian Nobel Laureate and the vice-chancellor of the Australian National University (ANU).
Mr Schmidt claims that under the new government guidelines and funding arrangements, the subjects that the government wants to discourage our students from studying are actually the most profitable for the universities. According to Mr Schmidt, the degrees which are affected the worst are science and engineering. He goes on to say that “we are simply not going to be able to take enough students [in STEM fields] as we did last year.”
This is not surprising and was predicted last year by Ian Jacobs, president and vice-chancellor of The University of New South Wales, in a statement reported by Anisa Purbasari Horton of the BBC.
According to Jacobs, the reductions in fees for some subjects have also meant a reduction of government contributions for those subjects. That means that expensive courses like science, where the reduction in government funding leaves a huge gap in the cost of the course, become less profitable to teach. Whereas, in subjects like law and other arts subjects, the increase in fees is enough to cover the drop in government subsidies.
I would have thought that somewhere in the raft of university degrees held by members of the LNP there would have been a mathematician who could have helped them with their calculations.
Where does that leave us?
As Gavin Moodie said, conservative governments prefer to limit higher education to students and subjects they think are worthy. The idea of censorship is not one that bothers them.
To Joel Barnes, these latest cuts are simply the latest skirmish in a decades-old battle against the humanities by governments who see them “as generally antagonistic to political interests.” They are not wrong. Barnes’ belief that “it’s useful for society to have a well-educated citizenry who understands how politics function, who understands the history of a given nation, and how that fits into broader culture,” is absolutely at odds with a government that is opaque, cruel and self-serving.