The cone of silence descends

27 September 2013

The incomparable David Rowe makes a point in the Australian Financial Review

The incomparable David Rowe makes a point in the Australian Financial Review

The difference between being in government and opposition, Tony Blair once famously said, is that in government a minister wakes up and thinks, “what will I do today”. In opposition, the spokesperson wakes up and thinks, “what will I say today?” New education minister Christopher Pyne possibly began to appreciate this difference when his public musings about “quantity” versus “quality” (i.e. the pros and cons of the demand driven system),  sparked the most public attention of the nascent government’s term (except for deciding not automatically announcing new boat arrivals).  People think that what he says may reflect what he’s going to do.

It certainly inspired the likes of cartoonist David Rowe (above) and an enormous amount of media commentary and analysis.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has cracked down and directed that ministerial media commentary needs to be ”co-ordinated” through his office – and there’s  nothing wrong with that either: government policy does need to be subject to an approval process.  At the moment, government policy is that the demand driven system will be retained and that fees will not be increased.  Even a newly minted minister can’t unilaterally rewrite the policy, particularly when the leader (now prime minister) has articulated “seven pillars” which seemingly rule these changes out.

As The Scan  archives on caps and fees show, both these issues have been the subject of contention for some time.  There’s a great divide in the university community, with the more established universities in favour of caps  and greater fee deregulation.  And then there’s the “other” universities which favour neither.

We cover all sides but, as a general rule, The Scan is with the “others”  – and  that’s not the way the tide seems to be  flowing.

It was certainly a garbled set of messages: Pyner says he’s in favour of “quality” over “quantity” and he’s reviewing the demand driven system.  But that doesn’t mean reimposing caps or a “minimum ATAR” to qualify for university entry or fiddling with fees – at least that’s what the Prime Minister has told him it doesn’t mean – for now, at least.

The Abbott government is to establish a “commission of audit’ of the Commonwealth budget, which is to report by the end of 2013, so as to inform the 2014 budget.

So we expect that’s where the action is – May 2014.

And what will the action be?

The government probably won’t formally re-impose caps – but it will come up with something to “maintain standards”.   While Christopher Pyne eschews “targets”, a minimum ATAR of 60 for year 12 students sort of matches the 40% attainment target  (although in his public musings, Pyne has ruled out resorting to minimum university entry scores).

And they will quite possibly do some variation of  what the UK’s Conservative / Liberal government did : double or triple fees,  and cut or remove altogether the government subsidy  for degrees like arts, business - indeed, anything outside the STEM courses….?

In a recent editorial, the Australian Financial Review captured the sentiment:

…Christopher Pyne is right to question whether Labor’s equity push is sustainable.  But simply going back to the Howard government’s cap on enrolments is not the right answer.

Rather than crude quotas on the number of Australians allowed into universities, he needs liberate the price universities can charge for their services.  That would send a better signal to universities about what courses to supply while better revealing what courses students value.

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