Call me old fashioned, but I like my revolutions to result in fundamental changes. I want them to toss out the oppressive, unjust and self-serving regime and replace it with something that is equitable, inclusive and exciting. Even if reality doesn’t always work out exactly that way, it’s a pretty uninspired revolution that doesn’t even try to overthrow the worst excesses of the status quo.
And there is plenty in the Australian education status quo that needs profound change.
A task force of the council of state and federal education ministers has admitted that public schools are suffering a $2.9 billion annual funding shortfall. Meanwhile, under John Howard’s leadership federal funding of private schools has blown out by $3.6 billion a year in inflation adjusted terms. Bloated private school subsidies have created massive inequity with the public sector, exacerbating divisions within Australian society and undermining the very essence of a fair go for kids.
To top it off, John Howard’s education ministers used funding blackmail to impose their government’s narrow ideological agenda on public education. Under a threat of losing part of their meagre federal payments, schools were forced to have flagpoles, display posters about “values” and implement inappropriate report cards. Damaging and divisive “performance-based” pay for teachers loomed large on the Howard government agenda that also included direct funding for chaplains, a history curriculum that sacrificed educational outcomes to politics and an ill-informed attack on literacy teaching.
TAFE has been beggared by ten years of federal funding cuts. Public payouts to private and for-profit providers ballooned, undermining standards and threatening to privatise vocational education and training by default. In a climate of growing skills shortages and unacceptable youth unemployment, it is hard to believe that TAFE was so badly abused.
TAFE was also subjected to the Howard government ideological attack. Using their favoured tool, funding blackmail, they tried to force Australian Workplace Agreements and training packages onto colleges. To top it all off, the previous federal administration set up a semi-privatised and highly inefficient system of Australian Technical Colleges to compete with state-based TAFE.
Universities faired no better under the ancien régime. While OECD countries were busy boosting public investment in tertiary institutions as a share of GDP by an average of 48 per cent, John Howard slashed his government’s contribution by 7 per cent. Students were forced to pay more to receive less.
Universities were increasingly forced into the hands of the private sector and full fee paying students, with appalling consequences for standards and independence. At the same time the federal government imposed a set of punitive industrial relations conditions designed to bust the tertiary education union. The Coalition destroyed student unionism and changed institutional governance arrangements to suit its own objectives. Again, the favoured tool was funding blackmail.
Across the board, it was a miserable 11 years for the ideal of public provision of education creating a fairer, more cohesive and successful society. By early 2007, a revolution was a very attractive prospect for teachers, students, parents and supporters of public education.
While sending mixed massages, Labor’s behaviour in opposition occasionally gave cause for hope. For a while they opposed Voluntary Student Unionism. They spoke out about some aspects of the private school funding formulas, even though they failed to oppose it in the Senate where it really counted. Former leader Mark Latham, now living in self-imposed internal exile, was prepared to raise the question of whether some private schools really needed multiple swimming pools and world-class performance spaces. And they regularly made an election issue of university funding.
So in January of last year when Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd and Shadow Minister Stephen Smith unveiled the manifesto of Labor’s “education revolution”, expectations were raised that there was something in the air.
Would this be the upheaval that would close the doors on the years of Howard’s ideological war on public education, teachers and academics? Would it see the federal government put real money into public schools, TAFE colleges and universities? Would it unchain public institutions from the picket-fence values imposed by blackmail?
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