There is much to be welcomed about “Investing In Our Economic Future”, the Australian Labor Party statement released today, 21 September.
Starting with a point that appears in the second half of the statement, Labor will initiate a targeted Green Paper-White Paper process to finalise the implementation of its reforms. Australia needs to be able to debate the detail of higher education policy, not be ambushed by sweeping reforms, or be told there is a crisis and that there is no choice. I welcome this return to order and orthodoxy.
I also support the proposal for a Higher Education Productivity and Performance Commission. I would not have welcomed a “buffer” body a few years ago, but if this is a way of taking the politics out of higher education and allowing decisions to be made based on reason and evidence then I support it.
I commend the intention to invest more public funding into higher education rather than keep looking to students and increasing their debt levels. Australian students already pay a higher proportion of the cost of their higher education than in other developed nations, and the taxpayer pays well below the average of OECD countries as a proportion of GDP.
We will need some time to work through the actual net impact of the funding commitments, and how they compare with today’s actual funding rather than the Liberals’ blocked 20% cuts, but at least the debate is now in the right place: how much extra can Australia invest in its future through its universities.
I welcome the proposal to increase the funding of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency. There will be a question about how this relates to the proposed Commission, but if Australian students are to be protected in a much-expanded sector, and Australia’s reputation as a higher education destination is to be advanced, we have to have a properly funded watchdog.
I can understand why Labor will want to make its extra investment deliver on policy objectives, and at the level of detail we have I do not have a problem with focusing on completions, provided it is through better support of students who do have the potential rather than funding pressure to pass students who do not.
Indexing funding by CPI will provide a level of certainty. In most years this is not as high as the Higher Education Grants Index but provided the indexation is not eroded by supposedly only-off efficiency dividends it seems a reasonable step: and universities do need to keep focusing on cost-controls.
Perhaps the most welcome aspect of this statement is that it offers a positive, egalitarian and optimistic approach to higher education rather than a divisive, scare-mongering one.