« China Celebrates | Main | Electricity Blackouts & the Internet »

October 02, 2003

a politically charged atmosphere

I attended the hearings of the Senate inquiry into the funding and regulatory legislation of higher education yesterday afternoon. I heard submissions from the University of South Australia, the student unions of the three universities in Adelaide, the Flinders University of South Australia and part of the submission from the South Australian Government.

That paragraph captures the surface tedium of a Senate inquiry. It presents itself as being pretty low key and just routine administration. Most people give inquiries such as these a miss. Yet it was a very politically charged atmosphere in that conference room in Adelaide University. You could feel the heavy action political power----something that is quite alien to a university, for all its academic politics. The politically-charged atmosphere signified a common understanding: that the people present understood the Senate to be where the political action is. They tacitly knew that the battle lines had been drawn up and the combat was in progress. All those present in the room---including the SA Government---grasped that they were engaged in combat.

Outside the room of federal democracy in action, the media continued to circulate the messages from the Howard Government about a hostile Senate. They produced their commentary on various proposals by the Howard Government to clip the wings of an obstructionist Senate in the name of more efficient governance. The Howard Government sees itself as the CEO of Australia UnLimited trying to get things under control.

Now it was not the Vice-Chancellor's supposed opposition to the shift towards market governance, and away from education as a public good, that made the Senate hearings so politically charged. That shift was accepted on pragmatic grounds. The politically charged atmosphere was partly due to the conflict between Senators Carr and Tierney and the hostility between Tierney and the Student Unions. But above all it was because the vice-chancellors had to be very careful in what they were saying in response to the senator's questions. Being too critical of the Howard Government's tabled legislation would invite payback. Few in the room had any doubts about the payback. So the Vice-Chancellors had to quietly slice up the legislation whilst appearing to do otherwise. Everybody understood what was what and some performed the task better than others.

What came through the question and answer sessions was that Nelson's reform package---entitled Our Universities: Backing Australia's Future--- would increase the market mechanism in higher education, was a short-term injection of funds and would increase the financial burden on students. It would also cause a deepening of the institutional divide, based on the universities' ability to compete in a deregulated market. And it would increase the coercive control over the universities by the state.

I presume that the libertarians would welcome the greater shift towards market mechanisms as a step in the right direction towards complete deregulation and the universities beginning to respond to price signals. But they would have to be critical and deeply opposed to the instrusive and heavy-handed control by the state over these public institutions.That obsessive control is very much at odds with the centrality of institutional autonomy and localised knowledge.

And they are critical.

The level of micro-management intrusion---the Minister can disallow individual academic courses---is a classic example of the conservative central control system. Though no doubt, the libertarians will probably fog things by calling it the old socialist command and control system run by the Politburo.

Whilst sitting there listening to the Senators questioning the Vice-chancellors, I thought about the deep desire for central planning by a government that talks the language of the free market. The conservative command and control seems to be on the increase behind all the government talk about the excessive and restrictive regulations and heavy centralized bureaucratic arrangements that stifle the education sector and prevent it from maximising its potential.

previous comments

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at October 2, 2003 03:19 PM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


By the early 70s with the advent of 'free' university entry the Left had seemingly broken the stranglehold, the sons and daughters of the privileged had previously enjoyed in higher education. To what extent this was the true case, I have my doubts. It may well have been the case, that the inexorable demographic blip of post-war baby boomers, was the real impetus for the plethora of new CAEs and Universities. Simply an idea whose demographic time had come.

This same demographic was to produce the rapid urban sprawl to the north and south of my city Adelaide, as they wed and formed new households. By the time a State govt. was prepared to address the problem with the new city of Monarto, the demographic problem had passed and Monarto became a costly zoo and woodland.

What of the expanded tertiary education sector? Well it suffered some inevitable amalgamations, but with a vocal supplier lobby group, jealously guarding its expanded role, it fared much better. These new polo-necked defenders of the faith, fought tooth and nail any attack on their empire. They happily enlisted the new converts entering their portals, to the idea that tertiary education was the answer to all societies ills, or at the very least, a bulwark against the chill winds of globalisation. Mind you it didn't mind opening its doors to globalisation, with international students, when it began to grow a bit short of local demographics. Never let it be said that the polo-necked left and their converts, were not against a bit of good old market pragmatism, when their tenure was on the line.

It could also create a few new courses in basket-weaving to drum up more business, or lower the academic bar if the numbers were getting a bit thin. If the market woke up to the increased number of lower grade graduates, you could always satisfy them with the increasingly necessary Honours or Phd grads. It would even acquiesce quietly with its favourite Labor govt.on a usually, morally repugnant HECS scheme, if financing the punters through the doors, was getting to be a bit of a problem. Overall, a very flexible and pragmatic sniffer of the winds of change.

When you create empires, you must ensure every sandstone foundation is in place. The Secondary schools are your feedstock, unless of course they consist of Technical schools which are of no use to you. You will inculcate a whole generation of educationalists that 'education is for life' and to stream some children away from academia and into physical skills training is heresy. You will happily condemn a generation of working-class kids to the unemployment scrap-heap for a rounded education and the greater good of society.

When Goodwood Tech, the last technical high school in Adelaide closed its doors some 12 years ago, I was told by the staff that every final year student had a job to go to. I personally apprenticed one such work experience lad, who was previously failing at Westminster private school and now topped his class at Goodwood. Can you imagine the crass troglodytes who ran that school? They used to get the students to clock on and off school each day and mark them down for absenteeism or lateness.

You could see the same occurring in the nursing profession as in-hospital trainig was commandeered by one of Adelaide's burgeoning new universities, Flinders. A new breed of tertiary educated nurses was put through the halls of academia, many of them to give up their profession soon after graduation, because it all got a bit mucky and demanding in the wards. The result, like the demise of the Technical schools, a serious shortage of nurses, plumbers, electricians, fitters and mechanics and the list goes on.

Where are we now? Well we have a large glut of academic graduates in many fields and a serious shortage of skilled technicians. The universities are on borrowed time with only the demographic echo effect of the baby-boomers to sustain their large claim on the community's scarce resources. Their time in the sun is up and is it any wonder the barbarians are at the portals with their talk of accountability, vouchers and life grants for consumers. Still, it is an articulate empire, even if it has fiddled too long. It remains to be seen, if an educated community will still dance to its tune, when there are not enough plumbers or nurses to attend to its drips.

Posted by: Observa at October 4, 2003 03:50 AM

I taken your comments and given them a post.They are buried here.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson at October 6, 2003 12:49 PM

Post a comment

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)