Emerson, Farrell and Bird to share higher education portfolio

Craig Emerson will be assisted by Sharon Bird and Don Farrell in the Higher Education portfolio. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard today named Craig Emerson as her new Tertiary Education minister, saying that junior ministers Don Farrell and Sharon Bird will assist him in the role.

The reshuffle follows the resignation of several high profile ministers and supporters of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, after a failed leadership spill last week.

Former Higher Education minister Chris Bowen was among the ministers who retired to the back bench late last week.

“The critical human capital and productivity portfolio of Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research will be taken by Craig Emerson. Craig will retain his current roles as Minister for Trade and Competiveness and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Asian Century Policy,” Ms Gillard said in a statement released today.

“Craig will be assisted by two junior Ministers – Don Farrell, as Minister for Science and Research and Sharon Bird as Minister for Higher Education and Skills.”

Simon Marginson, Professor of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne, said that the “task of new Minister for Tertiary Education and Skills is to avoid disaster in Labor’s relations with the sector, in the next six months.”

“The Department of Finance is looking to make savings in order to fund the Gonski [plan] by reverting to the earlier partial indexation formula for funding of Commonwealth supported places (a recipe for continued erosion of quality of teaching), and also may want to cap the demand driven system,” he said.

“But these are Labor’s two real achievements in higher education. Both decisions - especially the first - would trigger a political backlash.”

Professor Marginson said such a move would increase Labor’s political isolation within the country.

“Any further erosion of research funding would also be badly received. Labor’s track record in research and innovation has been mediocre all up - National Health and Medical Research Council funding and Australian Research Council grant funding have not substantially increased in six years and commitment to phasing in full research support was halted last budget,” Professor Marginson said.

Dr Geoff Sharrock, Program Director of the Master of Tertiary Education Management at the University of Melbourne’s LH Martin Institute said that “a trio of ministers to cover the bases in tertiary education, skills, science and research can be helpful, if they work closely together.”

“However, between now and [the election in] September, it’s hard to see any fresh gains for universities. Funding-wise, the government is out of ammo and focused elsewhere.”

Dr Sharrock said that Labor’s best bet “is to match with specifics [Opposition Leader] Tony Abbott’s general message of relative policy and funding stability, while attacking his lack of detail.

"Coalition commitments to date appear benign, but so far they still allow enough wiggle room to stage a Wiggles concert.”