Reforming childcare and higher education policy shape as top priorities for Labor in its first term in government.
ON paper, recent Coalition governments’ support for education could best be described as inadequate.
It’s true that the first budget, authored by an austere Joe Hockey, did cut a particularly harsh line through higher education funding as it sought to hand degree pricing, hitherto controlled by policymakers, over to university administrators.
As political opinion swayed against Mr Hockey, though, the so-called ‘age of entitlement’ dragged on well into the Coalition’s ninth year in office, by which time ambitious deregulation had been firmly ditched and federal dollars for the sector had ballooned from $29.5 billion to $44.7 billion.
Balance sheets speak for themselves in Western Australia.
None of the state’s public universities reported an operating deficit last year, after two of four had gone into the red in 2020, with improved investment returns and stable international student income boosting a whole-of-sector surplus of $416 million last year.
At least that’s the story annual reports and budget papers tell. As recently as 18 months ago, universities were set an impressively high hurdle to accessing JobKeeper that locked all bar one of Australia’s 44 institutions from accessing the government’s wage subsidy scheme.
Followed by the enactment of the jobs-ready graduates reforms, which shuffled course funding in such a way that amounted to a real funding cut over the forward estimates, the comparative lack of support for higher education had led to staffing and salary cuts that, in the case of the University of Western Sydney, resulted in a recent spate of industrial action.
Policymaker rhetoric undergirded a broader sense of combativeness with the sector.
That was typified in March by former acting education minister Stuart Robert’s decision to veto Australian Research Council grants to half-a-dozen research projects that, among others, pertained to China, climate change and the arts and humanities.
Those moves brought together unlikely allies–from Institute of Public Affairs executive director John Roskam to Labor’s then-education spokesperson Tanya Plibersek–in criticism, and that veto is unlikely to be reprised under the newly elected Labor government.
Notably, the party has promised a universities accord–a seeming nod to the income-prices accord of the 1980s that sought to ease the combativeness of unions on wages policy–in an effort to walk back culture warring in higher education.
Millions of dollars pledged to creating 20,000 new federally funded university places, free of any other funding changes, likewise appears a conciliatory move to the sector.
That the new government has telegraphed a desire to pull higher education policy out of the political arena was welcome news to Murdoch University vice-chancellor Andrew Deeks.
“Some of the commitments Labor gave in the run up to the election were very welcome, particularly that we should get away from the culture wars and the interference of government ministers in decisions concerning research funding,” Professor Deeks told Business News.
“We’re looking forward to a productive relationship with the government.”
Anthony Albanese has only been prime minister for a month, but early moves indicate a desire on his part to cool partisan rancour over higher education policy.
As a symbolic gesture, the decision to replace former political staffer Phil Gaetjens as head of Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet with former Griffith University and University of Melbourne vice-chancellor Glyn Davis served as an important signal to the public sector of the incoming government’s faith in academia’s role in administration and policymaking.
Decoupling skills and training from the education portfolio has also created some distance between this new government and its predecessor’s stated preference for graduates to be employable first and foremost.
So, too, has the appointment of Jason Clare as education minister.
It also gives him fair say over how schools are funded and, if he so chooses, the ability to wind back the previous government’s shift away from socioeconomic status ratings towards a needs-based model.
As Mr Clare told News Corporation earlier this month, meeting these goals will require a close working relationship with the higher education sector.
“They [universities] got hammered by COVID,” Mr Clare told Sky News’s Kieran Gilbert.
“They didn’t get JobKeeper, but they also lost a lot of international students. They represent one of the biggest export markets we’ve got.
“But they’re also the place where we build those skills that I talked about a moment ago, making sure we’re setting ourselves up for the future means that our universities are skilling up Aussies for those jobs. So, that’s really important as well.”
Mr Clare’s promotion to the ministry could be seen as a boon for the sector.
As campaign spokesperson, he served as a photogenic fill-in for Mr Albanese when he was struck with COVID-19 about a month out from the election.
Still, the political optics of Ms Plibersek being moved into the environment portfolio after six years as Labor’s education spokesperson would seem a demotion, given the possible leadership threat she poses to Mr Albanese, a factional ally.
Adding to this view was the high regard in which many in the sector held of Ms Plibersek prior to the election.
Not that Mr Clare, quietly touted as a future prime minister, is seen as a second-best option by stakeholders.
“We were probably expecting that we would be getting Tanya. She’d said quite a lot of things you might have expected her to follow through on,” Edith Cowan University vice-chancellor Steve Chapman said.
“We’ve got Jason Clare. I think that’s a good appointment [and] I’m really looking forward to working with him.
“He may have different takes. For me, I’m happy to work with him. I’m not going to second guess where Jason might want to go.”
Mr Clare’s restrained tone certainly appears welcome in light of Josh Frydenberg’s final budget as treasurer, which committed to a cut in funding for higher education at the same time as spending in real terms was boosted for vocational, primary and secondary education.
That early childhood education has been separated out into its own portfolio, to be held by Anne Aly, will also be welcome news to a sector promised $5.1 billion by way of increased and expanded childcare subsidies for most users.
Already, the federal government has been met halfway by the NSW government, with Treasurer Matt Kean having thrown down the gauntlet earlier in the year and committed to expand childcare funding with or without federal dollars.
His government will now offer 30 hours per week of pre-kindergarten learning to children aged four, only to be outdone by Victoria, where children aged three and four will receive free ‘play-based’ learning as of next year.
The Parenthood executive director Georgie Dent was clear in the view that efforts by NSW, Victoria and the federal government had opened the door for other states to reform early childhood education.
“What Australians need and deserve is political leaders at all levels focused on delivering a universally accessible, high-quality and affordable early learning system,” Ms Dent said.
“Investing in the ongoing sustainability of high-quality early learning now and in the long term will benefit children, support parents wanting to get back to work and stimulate the economy. It’s never been more important.”
Jay Weatherill, who leads Minderoo Foundation’s Thrive By Five initiative, was equally effusive in his praise of those states’ efforts.
“The announcements from the NSW and Victorian governments will provide a massive boost to the reform agenda and highlight that this is a shared responsibility for the development of children in the first five years of life,” Mr Weatherill said.
“Premier [Dan] Andrews and Premier [Dom] Perrottet have shown great leadership and opened a door of opportunity for all state and federal governments to work together for universally accessible, high quality and affordable early childhood education and care.”
Local appetite for similar reform is scant, with Education Minister Sue Ellery on record as taking a conservative approach to expanding WA’s current offering of 15 hours per week of government-supported kindergarten.
WA’s no slouch on early education policy, either, with the state government already funding research into coordinated early learning approaches at schools in Armadale and Derby.
The eye-watering dollar figure attached to childcare expansion may explain why these efforts haven’t gone further, with NSW’s program costed at $5.8 billion over the next decade and Victoria’s $9 billion.
Federally, more than $5.1 billion will be spent in the next four years just to get the ball rolling.
For the WA government, which is intent on debt reduction, already ahead of the curve and facing cost pressures elsewhere in its budget, the price tag shapes as a big ask.
The equation’s no different for Mr Albanese’s government. Labor’s election costings indicate relatively few cost-saving measures have been lined up to pay down its education policies, which carry a $607.1 million outlay in the next financial year.
Cancelling the previous government’s Youth Jobs PaTH internships, which provide incentives to businesses to trial and hire interns, will save $22.5 million over the forward estimates.
Removing the 10 per cent discount for up-front HECS-HELP payments will net a far bigger sum in that time of $144.7 million.
Complicating these efforts will be what decision, if any, is made about what to do with the previous government’s jobs-ready graduate reforms.
In a budget where education expenses are expected to increase by 0.6 per cent, there’s likely little political will to roll back reforms that will lower expenses by 5.4 per cent between now and FY2023.
ECU’s Professor Chapman didn’t go quite as far when quizzed on the topic by Business News but did argue those reforms should be looked at on their merits before any new measures were undertaken.
“I would honestly think before any major changes are done, a serious review of the jobs-ready graduates program needs to be looked at,” Professor Chapman said.
“Has it delivered what was intended in a useful way?”
None of these issues proved too much of a political headache during the campaign, given the incumbent government was running a $67.5 billion budget deficit in its final year in office, rendering criticism of Labor’s $7.4 billion spending increase moot.
But with childcare and universities to receive about $5.5 billion between them over the forward estimates, they stand out as ripe targets for Treasurer Jim Chalmers’ much-touted budget clean up.
The optics of Mr Chalmers’ efforts will help set expectations and give cover to the possibility of rolling back any election commitments that may now prove untenable.
Speaking to 6PR’s Gareth Parker earlier this month, the treasurer seemed to indicate the government had the capacity to chew gum and walk at the same time when it came to its education promises.
“My colleague … [finance minister] Katy Gallagher and I have already begun going through the budget line by line so we can identify and trim spending which isn’t necessary in the context of high and rising inflation, so we can redirect that spending from unproductive purposes into more productive economic purposes which can grow the economy without adding to these inflationary pressures,” Mr Chalmers said.
“That’s why training and childcare and infrastructure and a lot of those investments are so important.”
At least one major stakeholder is hoping the government will act quickly on its priorities.
“Now that they hold the keys to government, we expect and urge the new prime minister to act swiftly on his promise to reform the early learning sector.”