University deregulation

Arena magazine 134, February-March 2015. Read the original here.

Another parliamentary term, another broadside against the shaky foundations of the Australian welfare state. Following its humiliations over Medicare and the travesty of the Philip knighthood, there would seem to be few other measures left for the government to stake its credibility on than its plans to deregulate universities. Having previously declared his readiness to do ‘whatever needs to be done to ensure that our universities are the best they can be’, education minister Christopher Pyne is now insisting that there are limits: he will not permit the basic deregulation principle to be ‘adulterated’ by cross-bench demands, and he will allow the package to lapse rather than compromise its vision. Such chest-beating is artfully ambiguous: on the one hand, it is designed to reassure ghoulish cross-benchers David Leyonhjelm and Bob Day, who have threatened to withdraw their support if the package’s market-fundamentalism is weakened even an iota, while, on the other, it serves as a face-saving indication that, caught between the Leyonhjelm-Day and Greens-Labor positions, the government does not intend to keep the issue in play for ever.

That is not to say that Pyne won’t go to almighty lengths to secure the passage of a deregulation bill—a reform that Abbott has placed ‘front and centre’ of the government’s legislative plans. There is no doubt that it would be a correspondingly major victory, for students and for society as a whole, if deregulation were defeated. But even if the government’s plan collapses—in the words of Marx, ‘like a balloon pricked by a needle’—it’s clearer than ever that the crisis for universities will not be over.

In recent weeks Pyne has succeeded in rallying a dismaying clutch of minor Labor celebrities to the deregulation cause. Seeing John Dawkins or Maxine McKew—now a lobbyist for Melbourne University—wheeled out to hawk deregulation serves as the umpteenth soul-destroying confirmation of the accuracy of the famous adage from The Eighteenth Brumaire: the tradition of the dead generations really does weigh like a nightmare on the minds of the living.

Dawkins and McKew testify to the longevity and robustness of the ALP’s commitment to market solutions for higher education. It may be expedient for Labor to oppose deregulation now, amidst the electoral swordplay of a bungling first-term government, and with higher education easily assimilated to the frontal assaults on health and welfare. But—does it really need saying?—no one should have any illusions that the ALP has discovered a newfound commitment to public education, or that the deregulation threat has been averted for good. Gillard was ready to gouge billions from university budgets; no trust can be placed in a future ALP government either.

The contradictions of the present government’s deregulation package are just as glaring now as when it was first introduced. Deregulation transfers responsibility for a public good—education—onto private shoulders, instituting a swath of inequities in the process. Universities’ affirmations that their (by their own admission, modest) scholarship programs will preserve equity of access are risible and, rightly, have barely figured in the debate. Extending state-backed loans to the private tertiary industry will compound waste and inequity, and commit the government to even more unlimited lending, not all of which, by any means, will be recouped through the tax system.

Claims that deregulation will make students more discerning in their choice of degree, thereby reconciling existing disparities in graduate supply and demand, could only possibly work if the cost of deregulated degrees was significantly higher than it is now. In short, deregulation of university fees is a social-justice meltdown—which might be part of the reason it has not been tried anywhere else in the world. The sheer unprecedented nature of Pyne’s reforms, and the consequent policy recklessness of implementing them, cannot be stressed enough.

Everyone, apparently, accepts that something must be done to fix Australian higher education. But it is telling how many vice-chancellors have flocked to the Group of Eight’s genius solution: make students pay. Pyne continually stresses that ‘universities themselves’ want his reforms. What he means by this is that (some) vice-chancellors do. Not all, however: one of the real achievements of the antideregulation campaign is the continuing fragmentation of VCs’ united front, which is looking a lot less solid now than it was as recently as December.

But even if no VC had broken ranks to call the Pyne reforms into question, it would be impossible to identify vice-chancellors with universities as Pyne has done. VCs are not avuncular figureheads invested by university communities with any actual representative function; they are the overlords of a managerial caste ever more remote from the staff and students they administer. Consulting the ‘sector’ about university funding should mean listening to the views of the people who actually make universities work. It is no rhetorical sloganeering to state that this is staff and students, not the upper-management and university-council satraps who are largely, if not wholly, redundant with respect to universities’ core functions. In any case, chancellors and VCs are in no sense independent spokespeople for the higher-education sector: thoroughly beholden to the corporate world, they are not infrequently on a revolving door between government, business and campus. Collectively, they have shown that, when they are not the very agents of the rampaging neoliberal enclosure of knowledge in our society, they are congenitally unwilling or unable to raise even a squeak of protest against it.

By contrast, the National Union of Students and the National Tertiary Education Union (of which I am a member) are the only representative and democratic bodies within higher education. Unlike VCs, both have condemned Pyne’s reforms root and branch. Deregulation has even led some university staff, including me, to form a new organisation, the National Alliance for Public Universities (NAPU), a coalition of university staff members determined to reassert the principles of public higher education against the thinly disguised barbarism of Pyne and his VC death-cult.

It is worth taking the full measure of what VCs’ support for the Pyne reforms implies. It is hard to imagine the heads of financial regulators, hospitals, fire brigades or other essential public instrumentalities welcoming the effective withdrawal of state funding with the alacrity VCs have shown. In a recent manifesto published in The Conversation, University of Melbourne VC Glyn Davis shares a fascinating justification for his part in this general surrender. Essentially, Davis is convinced that governments will never commit to increasing expenditure on universities, regardless of anything VCs might do. ‘Like student leaders, vice-chancellors work hard for policy influence but prove marginal to the big political choices’, he says. The plight of universities is on no one’s lips in the electorate, and his personal experience has taught him just how hard it is to make the case for change:

In response to a question to the National Press Club, I once argued for higher taxes on people like me so more Australians could access a quality university education. The reaction was immediate, hostile, personal and visceral. The experience made me appreciate why politicians who argue for higher taxes remain rare.

Davis then goes on to relate how Universities Australia spearheaded what he amusingly calls a ‘sustained campaign’ for increased public funding. Unfortunately, however:

Even as Universities Australia ran advertisements and promoted public meetings, the then-tertiary education minister, Craig Emerson, announced reductions to university funding so the government could finance the schools package recommended by David Gonski. Emerson’s decision made clear that schools have political salience but universities do not.

These distressing anecdotes make it abundantly clear just how little conception of either education or politics someone like Davis has. Defending equitable higher education, as any progressive cause, should be about winning support in a determined and extended public campaign. For Davis, what it appears to mean is a few ads, some insider conversations and capitulating at the first major setback, from which the conclusion is instantly drawn that it’s all just too hard.

Davis’s claim that demands for increased tertiary funding come up against the brick wall of taxpayer indifference has become an article of faith among VCs. Why? Just under the surface lurks some nasty class prejudice. The subtext isn’t hard to hear: we, the enlightened and educated elite, of course, we understand the importance of universities. Even the politicians understand it. But the bogans in the swinging seats just don’t—they’re too stupid and venal. There’s nothing anyone can do about it and we can’t be blamed if the mass of people’s inability to appreciate their own interests lets us feather our own nests a bit deeper.

One could hardly ask for a more damning indictment of VCs’ failure as either advocates or educators. The NTEU, NUS and NAPU have shown how much can be achieved by a genuine, public campaign; Canberra University’s VC, Stephen Parker, is proof of what is possible when a university leader really tries to shift the terms of the debate.

The inescapable conclusion is that, despite his protestations, Davis and the others care as much about public education in this country as Joe Hockey cares about working-class motorists. Davis’s citation of Oxford—Oxford!—as an instance of a ‘public’ institution of the kind relevant to Australia is proof positive of the elitist vision at the heart of his program.

The most dangerous aspect of the VCs’ position, however, lies not in its consequences for higher education, unacceptable though these are. It lies instead in its implications for the rest of the government’s funding priorities. In offering up universities as targets of supposed expenditure reduction, VCs are effectively endorsing the existing budgetary priorities of the federal government—the deployment in the Middle East; the war on refugees; tax breaks to middle and corporate Australia; and subsidies for polluters, calculated by the ACF as worth $7 billion. All these, it seems, are, in the view of the VCs, better uses of taxpayers’ dollars than the goal of fostering high levels of educational achievement in society.

The question of how competing budget priorities should be ranked is a question of major national importance on which university ‘leaders’ should express a view. Instead, they have remained mute and servile before the stupendously retrograde political consensus.

Assuming that Labor’s opposition to deregulation is locked in for now, how the cross-bench will finally vote is the great imponderable of the political moment. While the pundits and haruspices pore over their sacrificial animals’ entrails for signs—what more reliable method is there?—one certainty remains: the most dangerous enemies of educational equity in Australia occupy the offices of the Go8 VCs. We can only hope that their colleagues in other formations continue to break away from the deregulation consensus. Deregulation or not, restoring collegial and democratic governance to all universities will be the key to loosening the stranglehold of neoliberalism over the academy. It will be a long battle: Glyn Davis, take note.

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