The death of evidence in education policy?

Has Pyne signalled the death of evidence-based policy in favour of ideology? Shutterstock

As federal Education Minister, Christopher Pyne has been a revelation. Once seen as a leading moderate, it has been noted that he has emerged as one of the most hardline ideologues in the ministry. Certainly his recent changes to higher education, contradictory to his pre-election commitments to continue existing funding arrangements, have been ideologically driven.

The ideology in question, one suspects, is free-market libertarianism. This approach draws heavily on Fredrich Hayek, a leading economist who influenced Reagan and Thatcher, and continues to be heavily influential today among groups such as the US “Tea Party” Republicans.

In essence, Hayek suggested that unfettered markets provide the best social and economic outcomes. In general, once politicians and their bureaucrats got involved in regulating the way free markets operated, they stuffed things up.

Importantly, Hayek and his fellow travellers gave little weight to analysis informing policy development - the free market would internalise all of the analysis necessary as free economic agents made self-optimising choices.

Pyne’s recent reference to the “magic of markets” makes one think he is a zealous convert to such thinking. This prompts the questions: is his faith in markets crowding out the importance of analysis?; and what analytical and evidence-based policy development process was involved in the recent higher education changes that will transform the sector forever?

Past policy relied on evidence

Under the previous government, policy in the educational arena was informed by evidence. Of course politics was central, but big decisions were taken and explained on the basis of data and analysis.

An example is the Review of Funding for Schooling generally known as the Gonski review. The processes of developing the recommendations of this review were certainly impressive and inclusive. The committee received more than 7,000 submissions, visited dozens of schools and commissioned, considered and incorporated expert evidence from all Australian jurisdictions, as well as from abroad.

In essence, the Gonski review found that our school education system was slipping and needed significant new funding. Its recommendations suggested that extra resources should be distributed to areas of greatest need. Not doing so would further isolate those at the margins of our society. David Gonski, in delivering the report, noted:

The panel is strongly of the view that the proposed funding arrangements outlined in the report are required to drive improved outcomes for all Australian students, and to ensure that differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions.

Wanted: evidence not ideology

In a recent interview on Radio National with Alison Carabine, University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis noted the government has been very consultative “after its budget announcements” (emphasis added by the author) - a reference to the many consultative bodies set up since the budget. When Davis was asked if the government had thought “long and hard about the unintended consequences” of the changes, Davis answered: “I’m assuming so.”

There are concerns, of course, that such thought has not occurred. What is emerging in the education arena are policy proposals driven more by ideology than by evidence. Such a change in approach, if true, is significant, as such ideology-driven policy is the antithesis of evidence-based policy.

Certainly the processes that delivered these unexpected and far-reaching higher education policy proposals have been opaque. What we have seen from the government in the last few days would not even earn it a “pass” grade, even in a deregulated business college.

Much more informative is research from Universities Australia that suggests that graduates may spend decades paying off debts, especially if they try to fit in such non-essentials as having children.

What does the future hold for education?

Pyne may be grinning from ear to ear, but his critics say his policies have no basis in fact. AAP

Somewhat ironically, then, while Christopher Pyne has been zealously championing the new market-based higher education changes, he has been retreating rapidly from any of the commitments necessary to implement the evidence-based Gonski recommendations beyond 2017. The government is choosing to leave this to the states, which are already dealing with ballooning costs in health care, policing and public infrastructure.

Pyne’s famous Cheshire Cat grin has become somewhat more forced in recent weeks, as questions continue to emerge about how much forethought went into his higher education proposals. Some more questions worth pondering include:

  1. Should we be looking at any part of the Australian education system in isolation from any other? Can we truly develop a world-class higher education system if the perennial failings in the school education system are not addressed?

  2. What evidence and modelling has been undertaken in relation to the long-term deregulation and marketisation of higher education? What can we expect in terms of outcomes from such changes?

  3. And finally, what place does evidence now have in policy formulation in the educational context? Can Australia really afford to conduct uncertain social experiments with something as fundamentally important as education?

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