Ian McAuley. Pyne on education funding.

A good friend is someone who, when you’ve had too much to drink at a Christmas party, ignores your protests and takes your car keys to prevent you driving home sozzled. You’re surely grateful the next morning.

When he gets back to the Adelaide’s leafy eastern suburbs and has regained his composure, Christopher Pyne might realize that Senators Lambie, Lazurus, Wang and Xenophon, in rejecting his university ‘reforms’, have saved him and his government from something almost as bad as a DUI conviction. In a country where almost everyone aspires to a tertiary education for themselves or their children, deregulating fees after cutting public support for universities by 20 per cent is a sure election loser.

He might even show his gratitude by sending Christmas cards to the four Senators.

Because the landscape of tertiary education is changing there are genuine reforms to be pursued. Information and communications technology is having a huge effect on tertiary education, but those who believe a university course can be delivered over the Internet in the same way as one downloads a novel from Amazon seem to have missed some important learning in their own education. Employers are increasingly interested in demonstrable skills rather than certificates, and graduates are increasingly finding themselves moving away from their initial disciplines, but a swag of technical skills is not the same as a capacity for critical thinking and an ability to live as a responsible and engaged citizen. And there is a need to bring TAFE and universities closer together, but this should involve the inclusion of more liberal content in technical education, as is the case in northern European countries, rather than pushing universities even further along the path of commercialization.

If the government wants these issues addressed, it must restore funding to the tertiary education sector, already badly savaged by the Rudd-Gillard Government before this Government cut funding even further.

Some Senators are arguing for a return to free university education, a proposal that’s unthinkable to either of the two main parties. It’s not unthinkable in Germany however, where Niedersachsen has just become the last state to abolish university tuition fees (joining with the Nordic countries), and it shouldn’t be unthinkable in Australia.

The political rejoinder is that to do so would involve billions of extra government debt. But the Government’s proposal also involves funding through debt – individual debt rather than government debt, and Australians already have high private debt. Whether Australians pay for tertiary education through HECS-type repayments or future taxes, that debt still has to be repaid. In a macroeconomic sense the form of debt makes no difference.

Where the difference comes, however, is in who chooses to go to university and what courses they choose. It’s easier to risk a $100 000 or $50 000 debt if, in time, you are likely to inherit a share in a million dollar house, and if you choose a course in corporate law rather than teaching. That’s the unfairness and gross misdirection of resources of Pyne’s proposals.  They disingenuously combine both inequity and economic waste – the waste of leaving many people’s capabilities underdeveloped.

Even better than either HECS or public debt, however, would be restoration of university funding through collecting more taxes from those who have enjoyed free or heavily-subsidised university education. Reforming ‘negative gearing’, restoring the pre-2001 capital gains rules, prohibiting use of family trusts for tax avoidance and removing superannuation concessions favouring high-income earners all come to mind.

It’s time for the baby-boomers to repay their debts to society and to contribute to educating those who come after them.

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