catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Nelson's legacy, Bishop's problems

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A couple of Catallaxy readers have emailed me asking why I haven’t posted on Julie Bishop’s elevation to the education portfolio. Having just started reading a book on expert political judgement (or rather the limits of it) caution in what I say is probably wise. There’s nothing on her public record about education that would trigger concern, but that’s partly because there is little on the public record on this subject at all. I have found a couple of Hansard speeches in which she quotes favourably from my work, but this is because a friend used to work for her, not because she thinks I have the answers (one of the quotes is from the first page of my book, from which Nelson also used to quote – a lesson there in where you should put important messages).

What I can talk about is what Nelson has left his replacement. Unfortunately the Higher Education Supplement hasn’t put online my article this morning on Nelson’s legacy, which notes the contradictions and tensions in Nelson’s policies. My main argument there is that Nelson’s central planning and micro-management is to a large degree undermining the capacity of his market reforms to make any positive difference to higher education. Though the ALP tried to work the words ‘ideological’ or ‘extreme’ or preferably both into every second or third sentence about Nelson (and all other Coalition Ministers), ‘ideological’ is exactly what Nelson was not. He did not work from an integrated set of goals or theory about how the world worked. His policy approach was to see problems and come up with ad hoc solutions to them, without any apparent realisation that the solution didn’t fit with the system as a whole or would create further problems later.

Some examples:

* The rigid quotas for distributing Commonwealth-supported places to universities were ostensibly to help protect regional universities from metropolitan competition (incidentally, this is very typical of higher education policymaking in this country – what students actually want to study and where is only ever a minor consideration). Yet it is regional universities that are most likely to incur penalties for breaching the quotas, because they cannot control their numbers as easily as higher-presitige institutions.

* To meet their quotas, universities dropped their entry standards, and then Nelson complained about this – even though in some cases it is a direct result of botched planning and too little flexibility when demand is not high enough.

* Though Cabinet is to blame for the VSU bill, it reduced the maximum amount universities could effectively charge their students to solve the problem of student unions, in the process creating new problems through undermining the 25% increase in student charges the year before.

* 3 days after achieving freedom of association in the VSU bill, Nelson announced an intention to abolish it by forcing student unions to accept apprentices and TAFE students (presumably because he was worried that student unions would go bankrupt under VSU, creating political problems)

* An amendment to legislation covering overseas students makes it compulsory to bundle charges for various amenities provided for them, while it is ostensibly illegal to bundle the same charges for domestic students (the VSU bill threatened to undermine services that universities are legally required to provide, following previous problems with inadequate support for o/seas students)

* An indexation system that ensures that per student revenue will increase at a lower rate than costs, solving perhaps some internal government budgetary problems but creating an over-reliance on overseas fee-paying students. In response to desperate recruiting of dubiously qualified overseas students, the government creates yet more regulation to protect Australia’s education reputation.

* Because of declining funding, universities cut low-enrolment courses. Nelson has put clauses in all university funding ‘agreements’ to stop them doing this without permission. Univerisites will respond by avoiding any course or discipline that might leave them with non-viable courses they are not allowed to drop. In the long term, this policy patch-up will probably make it more likely we will have shortages related to the unavailability of important but low-demand disciplines.

Then there were absurd things like:

* letting postgraduate full-fee students engineer themselves subsidies by borrowing money through FEE-HELP and then repaying and getting a bonus of 10% for ‘early’ repayment

* a Learning and Teaching Performance Fund that delivered windfall gains to some institutions with no promise to stick to the same criteria next year – ensuring that it can have no incentive effects

There are plenty of things Julie Bishop can do in the zero to moderate controversy range to help tidy this mess. But in my view the system is so incoherent and dysfunctional it needs to be re-built from first principles. However that would be, as Sir Humphrey used to put it, a ‘courageous’ policy.


Written by Admin

January 25, 2006 at 7:20 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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