Michael Gallagher of the Go8 has put out a press release in reaction to my piece in The Conversation on higher education reform, accusing me of “an attack on a straw man”. It’s a fine example of John Holbo’s two-step of terrific triviality. Gallagher backs away from his previous advocacy of deregulation as a positive benefit to the much weaker position I mentioned in the article that it is “unpalatable but necessary response to cuts in funding”, or, in Gallagher’s words that “the status quo is not an option”.
Gallagher starts by denying my claim that the Go8 “sees for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix as the way of the future” or that it advocates privatisation, similar to what we have already seen (with disastrous results) In Victorain TAFE. Here’s what he actually wrote in the piece I linked
Transnational corporates are also expanding. … Apollo Education Group Inc., through it s subsidiaries the University of Phoenix, Apollo Global, Institute for Professional Development, Western International University and College for Financial Planning, is one of the world’s largest private education providers. Much of its focus is on upgrad ing the qualifications of working adults. The Apollo Global network includes BPP , a provider of education and training to professionals in the legal and finance industries in the UK and Europe; Bridge School of Management , an Indian business school in joi nt venture with HT Media Ltd.; Milpark Education, a management education provider in South Africa; Open Colleges Australia comprising: Open Colleges; Integrated Care & Management Training; and College of Fashion Design ; UNIACC , a university of arts & communication in Chile; Universidad Latinoamericana, a communications, business, and medical university in Mexico.
Clearly such enterprises involve risks. Kaplan, for instance, has had difficulties with US accreditation. The University of Phoenix has run into difficulties regarding student dropout and graduate employment outcomes. These difficulties hit the bottom line quickly and require prompt responses from providers and regulators alike, as in all industries. The important policy point is not about individual providers but about the directions of change that pioneering providers indicate for the future through their successes and failures. The thing about the US enterprise culture, unlike Australia’s, is a willingness to accept learning from failure as a step to success. (emphasis added)
Readers can judge for themselves whether my summary was fair.
Gallagher objects to my characterization of the past twenty years as a period when governments have encouraged competition between universities, instead asserting that the uniformity we now observe has been driven by government edict. He was singing a different song back in 2001, when he wrote
In searching for alternatives to the common forms of government influence predominantly through regulation, … it could be fruitful to rely more on competition, diverse sources of funding, consumer power, serving different constituencies and public information on quality.
Such a new structure of incentives is now being put in place within the Australian higher education system.(emphasis added)
Notably, Gallagher does not respond to my observation that the result of deregulation will be a reduction in student numbers or to my prediction that all universities will greatly increase fees. Nor does he defend the US model proposed by the Go* against my evidence of its failure in its home country
In fact, he makes no positive claims for deregulation at all. Instead, he resorts to his own straw man, saying
No Australian government has yet been prepared to meet the full costs of a mass system, and no Australian government could do it, without greatly increased taxes.
Meeting the full costs of the system would mean replacing the HECS system with free access, something which I obviously did not advocate.
It’s certainly true that governments have seen the higher education sector as a convenient target for cuts, and that, if the cuts proposed in the Budget are carried through, but fees are held fixed, universities will be in an unsustainable position. But when a peak lobby group like the Go8 is actively supporting cuts in return for deregulation, it’s scarcely surprising that the government should think it will be easy to push such a package through.
Properly funding the current post-secondary education system, including TAFE and vocational educational as well as universities will require governments to refrain from further cuts to funding and ideally, to reverse some recent cuts. Expanding the system to the universal access we really need will certainly require additional funding, but not such as to entail “greatly increased taxes”. There is plenty of public support for this, and if bodies like the Go8 were doing their job, it could be mobilised.
The pathetic weakness of the Go8 (and of Universities Australia) was shown under the previous government, when the schools sector successfully pushed for the Gonski reforms, partly funded by cuts to higher education funding.
Gallagher complains that I identify problems, but not solutions, so I’ll propose a first step. Ineffectual committees of vice-chancellors like the Go8 and Universities Australia should dissolve themselves and make room for a body that would represent the entire sector (students and academics as well as management) and would put up a fight for higher education in the same way as do other representative groups.