Australian Labor Party plans another pro-business, higher education restructure

Australian Labor Party deputy leader Tanya Plibersek last month convened a panel, featuring prominent business representatives, to conduct a proposed “once in a generation” review of post-secondary education. It will purportedly be launched within 100 days of a Labor government taking office.

Plibersek’s language should be a warning to all educators and students. Labor is preparing yet another pro-business offensive against public education.

This is not the first “once in a generation review” carried out by a Labor government in the interests of the corporate elite. Almost 10 years ago, the Rudd Labor government released the report of its “Review of Australian Higher Education” under the title “Transforming Australia’s Higher Education System.”

The 2008 review, conducted by a panel of two senior academics and two business executives, headed by Professor Denise Bradley, became the platform for Labor’s market-driven “education revolution,” which has devastated the conditions of education staff and students alike.

Labor’s blueprint has turned the country’s public universities into business-dominated institutions, heavily dependent on corporate partnerships and engaged in competitive struggles to enrol both international and domestic students in business and vocational courses. Public Technical and Further Education (TAFE) colleges have been decimated by the proliferation of profiteering private vocational colleges, many of which have since collapsed, having ripped-off thousands of students.

The entire sector has become highly casualised and blighted by soaring fees, and large class sizes and workloads for teachers and professional staff. Under both Labor and Liberal-National governments, the education trade unions have blocked any unified struggle against this offensive. Instead, they have policed the gutting of conditions via enterprise agreements designed to deliver what employers require to survive in the education “market place.”

Union-negotiated enterprise agreements have helped managements casualise their workforce. Only 6.4 out of every 100 new positions created at Australian universities between 2009 and 2015 were tenured teaching or research jobs. At the same time, universities generate more than $22 billion a year in revenue for the wealthy elites, mainly by charging exorbitant fees to Asian and other international students.

Labor’s latest review will take this situation to a new level. It will seek to further transform universities and technical colleges into corporate entities, tied closely to the needs of business, and churning out graduates tailor-made for major employers. It will also try to push students away from university education altogether and into Vocational Education and Training (VET) courses.

The make-up of the panel indicates its agenda. A key member is Business Council of Australia (BCA) chief executive Jennifer Westacott. She delivered a National Press Club address last year demanding an integrated university-vocational college system “joined at the hip to industry.”

In her speech, Westacott outlined a corporate vision for the future of education, in which the majority of young people would only be trained to meet the skill specifications required by employers. She said employers were complaining that they were getting graduates “that aren’t ready for work.”

Westacott called for an end to what she called a “cultural bias, reinforced by a funding bias, that a VET qualification is a second-class qualification to a university one.” She announced that the BCA, which represents the largest corporations in Australia, wants a full voucher-style education system, in which students would purchase courses from competing public and private operators.

“The Business Council is proposing that every Australian receive a new Lifelong Skills Account to use throughout their adult life,” she said. “The Account would be made up of a taxpayer subsidy and an income contingent loan that could be used to pay for courses at any approved VET or higher education provider.”

Labor’s panel includes Rod Camm, chief executive of the Australian Council of Private Education and Training, representing private education providers, and James Pearson, the CEO of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, another employer group.

The education employers will be represented by Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson, two TAFE Directors Australia chiefs, Mary Faraone and Craig Robertson, and former University of Technology Sydney vice-chancellor Ross Milbourne.

Also on the panel is former Deputy Prime Minister Brian Howe, a key figure in the Hawke and Keating governments of 1983 to 1996, and Brotherhood of St Laurence research general manager Shelley Mallett, representing charities and NGOs.

Just as they did with Labor’s “education revolution,” the unions are enthusiastically backing the process. In fact, three top union officials will be on the panel—Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) secretary Sally McManus, National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) president Jeannie Rea and Australian Education Union (AEU) TAFE division secretary Pat Forward.

Their task is to corral the mounting opposition of educators and students to the destruction of their conditions behind the return of yet another Labor government and to then enforce the dictates of that regime.

Plibersek herself emphasised the central thrust of the review, brushing aside any conception of education as a critical all-round preparation for life, and for social and political engagement. “Labor wants prospective students to see TAFE and uni as equally attractive study options,” she said. She told Sky News on June 19: “The type of jobs people are doing is changing. We need an education system that gives them the skills and knowledge to do those jobs of the future.”

While the education unions promote Labor and the Greens as “progressive” alternatives to the Liberal-National Coalition, it was Labor that began the creeping privatisation of the tertiary sector. The Hawke government reintroduced student fees in the 1980s, first for international students, then domestic students. This was part of its restructuring of the economy, dictated by the corporate and financial elites, at the direct expense of the working class.

With the support of the NTEU—the main union covering universities—the Rudd and Gillard governments of 2007 to 2013 extended this transformation throughout the tertiary education sector. While boasting of having lifted caps on enrolments, the Greens-backed Gillard government cut $2.7 billion from tertiary funding in 2013, initiating a cost-cutting drive that has intensified ever since.

The NTEU is now, once again, trying to drum up support for Labor’s plans. “The NTEU applauds the strong emphasis on developing a cohesive and coherent post-school public education system rather than seeing vocational education and training (VET) and higher education as separate endeavours,” NTEU national president Jeannie Rea enthused in February, when Plibersek first foreshadowed the review.

This echoes the NTEU’s praise for Labor’s “revolution” as a “critical part of the nation building agenda.” Like the rest of the union movement, the NTEU has become an instrument for enforcing cutbacks on its members in order to render Australian capitalism “globally competitive” in a world dominated by ever more ruthless financial markets.

To fight for the basic social right of all young people to a free, first-class education and the right of all staff to decent, well-paid and secure positions, university and school employees need to make a decisive political break from the NTEU, along with all the other education unions, and from Labor and the Greens.

Such a struggle requires a socialist perspective, aimed at the complete reorganisation of society in the interests of all, not the profits of the wealthy few. We urge all those who want to take forward this fight to contact the Committee for Public Education, established by the Socialist Equality Party.

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[20 June 2018]