View from The Hill

View from The Hill

University cuts take gloss off school package

Prime Minister Julia Gillard aims to sign a critical mass of states up to her education plan before June 30. AAP/Joe Castro

The argument that the government has muddied its education message by cutting university funding as part of its package to boost schools spending has been reinforced by polling today from Essential Research.

Asked about the Gonski recommendations in general, 62% approve and only 18% oppose. This is just marginally weaker support than Essential found in July last year (65%).

But people are much more split when asked whether they approve of the government plan to “implement the Gonski recommendations by providing substantially increased funding for public schools, some increased funding for private schools and some reduction in funding for universities”.

Only 40% approved while 43% disapproved. Six in ten Labor voters approved while almost six in ten Coalition voters disapproved.

Those on higher incomes were more likely than average to disapprove of the trade-off package. Of those earning $600-$1600 a week, 47% approved, and 37% disapproved, while of people earning more than $1600, 36% approved and 50% disapprove.

This is the background against which Julia Gillard is trying to sign up a critical mass of states and territories before June 30.

At a community forum of swinging voters tonight in the Melbourne marginal Labor seat of Deakin, Gillard was asked four questions about education - and two of them focused on the university cuts.

Recalling that she first raised her voice as an activist in protest against Malcolm Fraser’s tertiary education cuts, she said if she were a vice-chancellor she would be complaining too. But all universities would still be getting more funds.

While the government is taking stick over the tertiary cuts, Tony Abbott has made it clear they would not be reversed by him.

On the schools package generally, the opposition’s strategy is to create as much trouble and uncertainty as possible between now and the deadline. After that, if Gillard succeeds in getting several government on side, the Coalition is likely to roll itself into a small target. It does not want school funding to be a big issue in the run up to the September 14 election.

At this stage of the debate, the Coalition is constantly sending out mixed signals. Tony Abbott dodged questions at the weekend of how the Coalition would react if Gillard got the states on board.

But Opposition education spokesman Christopher Pyne said today that if a new funding model was overwhelmingly across the states “we won’t seek to unpick that”.

It remains unclear where the key premiers of NSW, Victoria and Queensland will finally come down. With all the current talk about long term budget deficit problems one would imagine the temptation must be great for them to take the federal money, even though they have to stump up some themselves. They are not going to get as good a deal from Tony Abbott, and they don’t have anything obvious to lose.

The federal Liberals would not be surprised if these premiers adopted this attitude.

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