Politics 101: why Pyne has failed to sell his education ‘reforms’

Christopher Pyne’s education “reforms” have been wildly unpopular, and he hasn’t been very successful in winning people over. Why? AAP

No.

And with that, Clive Palmer indicated that the populist Palmer United Party (PUP) would not support the federal government’s proposed deregulation of the tertiary education system. At least in its short life-span, the PUP has shown itself to be thoroughly consistent in its inconsistency. A backflip isn’t impossible.

Nevertheless, while I’ve written elsewhere about the merits of education minister Christopher Pyne’s changes to higher education, we need to talk about the politics too. For the long, sorry saga serves as an ideal case study of how not to go about building support for a controversial reform program.

The first problem was that of consultation. When the reforms were announced in the May budget, the government caught all of the key stakeholders off-guard. The lack of prior consultation meant the government struggled from the outset to avoid the perception that its new policy simply reflected a pre-ordained template to turn the sector into a market.

A little research is highly illuminating in this regard. In November 2013, Pyne appointed a review panel to develop policy recommendations. “Demand”, not “value” or “access” or anything else, was positioned as the dominant metric; the report was entitled the Review of the Demand-Driven System.

The review panel comprised David Kemp, former education minister in the Howard government, and Andrew Norton, his long-time adviser. And no-one else.

Submissions were invited, with a deadline of December 16. In the month or so available for input, only two of the more than 80 submissions received were from organisations representing students and only four from concerned faculty members. A total of just six came from the people actually inside the classrooms.

As soon as fee deregulation was announced, therefore, the government was struggling to argue that its policy was anything but ideological. Pyne’s plan soon met with stiff public resistance. Many were concerned about long-term student debt and a narrowing of access. HECS architect Bruce Chapman pointed out that deregulation would mean a doubling or even a tripling of fees for some courses.

In this context, the government found, to its evident astonishment, that it could not even rely on support from the one group of people it should have been able to count on: university vice-chancellors.

Ian Young, vice-chancellor of the Australian National University (ANU) and chairman of the Group of Eight (Go8), recently described fee deregulation as the “holy grail” (evidently, Professor Young needs to get out more).

But other vice-chancellors were not as enthusiastic. Vice-chancellors from smaller and regional universities worried that increased competition would result in a shift of students, prestige and funds to the Go8, leaving them out in the cold. As Australian Catholic University vice-chancellor Greg Craven colourfully pointed out:

The most important thing is not that you have the best university in the world but the best university system in the world. You don’t want to have one Rolls-Royce and 12 clapped-out Commodores.

By any logic, Pyne’s winter 2014 “listening tour” of regional universities should have come before the policy announcement, not afterwards.

The second flaw in the politics was the government’s inability to show how deregulation would produce better tangible outcomes. Research is notoriously hard to quantify, so the government had its work cut out for it on that front. But it proceeded to play a poor hand terribly.

Many scholars (including myself) pointed out that the government’s desire to pursue a competition-driven model based on the American system drew all the wrong lessons about why US universities regularly dominate global research rankings. Nevertheless, the government pressed ahead. Confusing obduracy for resolve, it produced a shamefully misleading table on the 2014 Times Higher Education Rankings:

When compared with countries, not entire continents, Australia has the fourth-most universities on that readily Googlable list: more than France or China or Japan or Russia. It punches way above its weight. The US would have to have 57 universities on the list to match Australia’s GDP to Top University ratio.

Meanwhile, on the teaching front, the government was unable to avoid the lingering perception that students would pay more but not receive value for money. Why was it unable to rectify this? Largely because the government wanted to avoid having a conversation about the extent to which the reforms were driven by business rather than educational considerations.

In 2012, international education was Australia’s fourth-largest export, generating about A$14.5 billion in revenue. There are currently 233,099 international students in Australia, or 22.3% of the total, the highest proportion of all OECD countries.

The government has strenuously avoided acknowledging in public that the “demand” it was really interested in was foreign rather than local, but the budget papers themselves are explicit:

We are vying for students in a fiercely competitive international market … Currently, our universities have limited prospects of competing with the best in Europe and North America and the fast-developing universities of Asia.

The government knew that if the public grasped that under the new system Australian students would be paying for what international students demanded, instead of international students effectively subsidising locals (as currently occurs), the policy was dead in the water.

The final issue with the Pyne reforms was that the government signally failed to provide any concrete substance to its vision of the future. The policy is heavy on process; the Norton-Kemp “review” is very heavy going for even the most dedicated insomniacs like myself.

But the government has been unable to say what higher education would look like ten, 20, or 40 years down the track, precisely because under its plan the government would abdicate the shaping of that future in favour of market forces.

Again, this made the policy hard to sell. The government put itself in a position where it could not tell voters what they would be paying for their children’s education down the line nor what they would be getting for their money. Instead, it was forced to rely on a campaign of negativity, denigrating the current university system – whose support it badly needed.

The irony of this political calamity is that it should have been anything but unanticipated. If Pyne had done his homework, he would know that deregulation of higher education was a central plank in John Hewson’s neoliberal Fightback! program, resoundingly rejected by the public in the “unlosable election” way back in 1993.

Pyne would also know that, sobered by this experience, the Howard government repeatedly restricted itself to piecemeal incrementalism, resisting substantial pressure from the right wing to go further, faster.

Kemp, Norton and prime minister Tony Abbott were key figures in these earlier crusades. Pyne, with his long history as a moderate, should have known better than to help them pursue their holy grail once more.