Gonski package: the government’s big test will be NSW and Victoria

Prime Minister Julia Gillard is trying to get all the states on board to realise her schools funding reform plan. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

The Gillard government has two immediate problems with the politics of its A$14.5 billion education funding plan.

First, and most seriously, the six-year blueprint, which requires the states to pay one third of the funding and also sign up to conditions, including an extensive reform program for improving teachers, empowering principals and informing parents, is running into sharp opposition from at least two states while others are still to be convinced.

Second, the government looks hypocritical in unveiling big tertiary education cuts to help finance the plan, a day ahead of the schools announcement.

Achieving a comprehensive deal at Friday’s Council of Australian Government meeting, or even by the real deadline of June 30, appears close to impossible.

Western Australia seems implacable; the signs from Queensland are so far negative.

One assumes the Labor states of South Australia and Tasmania will get on board.

The big test for the government will be whether it can entice NSW and Victoria in. Victoria is unpredictable; NSW is sounding fairly positive. Unless it has these these two conservative states playing ball, the whole plan surely would collapse.

The government believes the education blueprint provides a point of sharp difference between Labor and the Coalition, but how well this contrast would work if key states were resisting is questionable.

Professor Richard Teese, director of the Centre for Research on Education Systems at Melbourne University, is critical of the government’s plan. He argues Labor has been far too anxious to head off opposition from the private non-Catholic schools and this has distorted the result. “An historic opportunity to get a more fair and equitable system is at risk of being lost”, he told The Conversation.

The government had put more effort into neutralising the political reaction from the independent schools - by lifting funding to over-resourced schools - than into negotiating with the states. The low offer to WA meant that state would not come in, he said, adding that there was a real danger the whole plan would go off the rails.

Despite having the Gonski report since late 2011, the government had also left the process of seeking to conclude a deal too late, Teese said.

(It might be added that this is a repeat of what happened with both media policy and superannuation policy. The pre-election months are the most difficult time to get controversial things done, but so much is being crowded into them, leading to massive problems and in the case of media reform, total failure.)

Ben Jensen, director of the School Education Program at the Grattan Institute, is more positive about the announcement. “It’s definitely an attempt to help the most disadvantaged schools and that should have an impact. It is not as big as Gonski proposed but it is still significant money,” although “whether the states have any money to do their share,, I don’t know.”

Jensen believes it doesn’t matter if some states don’t sign up. “The schools are run by the states”. But he thinks it will be very hard for states like Queensland and Victoria to say no to extra money.

Nor is he concerned about the amount of funds going to independent schools. “Independent schools are opening in poorer areas – I presume the money is going there”, he said.

In making its tertiary cuts, the government invited the inevitable criticism that it was robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Its answer is that it has spent heavily on universities and funding will still go up. But to grab more than A$2 billion out of the sector over the budget period, hitting both universities themselves and students, does take the gloss over all that rhetoric about being committed to education, to say nothing of the Asian century. This is especially the case when research funding was hit by cuts only a few months ago.

If Australia is to be made more internationally competitive and to take maximum advantage of the region, a strong tertiary education sector will be as vital as improvements in schools.

And the optics of cutting one part of education for the sake of another are difficult, muddying the government’s message.

As the debate rages, spare a thought for David Gonski. The man behind the report who is also chancellor of the University of NSW has the unenviable distinction of being both Peter and Paul.