If the government’s new schools funding plan represents an ideological change, its cuts to universities reflect a calculated antipathy. By Mike Seccombe.

Turnbull's war on universities

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in Sydney this week.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in Sydney this week.
Credit: AAP Image / PAUL MILLER

In the early days of his prime ministership, John Howard shared with some a private view about universities: don’t spend money on them, the people there don’t vote for us.

It is hardly novel to suggest that conservatives have always been troubled about the consequences of allowing the masses to be educated.

Ignorance advantages the political right, as John Stuart Mill noted in 1866 when, during a British parliamentary debate with Conservative MP John Pakington, he famously said that while not all conservatives were stupid, “stupid persons are generally Conservative”.

His words were perhaps a bit harsh. It might have been better if he had substituted “uninformed” for “stupid”. For it is less a matter of intellectual capacity than of access to the tools of critical thought.

Book learning is a real danger for conservative politics. Numerous studies show that the more educated a person is – the more developed their analytical faculties – the less likely they are to vote for a party of the right. And vice versa.

Conservative leaders are well aware of this, which is why they have historically sought, by one means or another, to limit the provision of education to the masses. They also are aware, though, that in a modern, knowledge-based economy, education is the key to growth. And so they face a dilemma: how to harness the brainpower of the masses without losing their political support. 

This might explain the long and tortuous process leading up to this week’s announcements by the Turnbull government that the budget would cut funding to schools and universities, at least relative to Labor’s promised funding.

It also explains why Turnbull should take very seriously Tony Abbott’s prediction of a vigorous party room debate next week. Abbott and the right-wing culture warriors appear to be girding for a fight to protect elite schools.

Before we get to the detail of this week’s policy announcements, though, let’s go to some examples of the way ignorance assists the political right.

Popular political wisdom holds that economic division led to the election of Donald Trump as United States president last year. Wrong, according to the analysis of America’s leading psephologist, Nate Silver.

He studied the county-by-county shifts in voting between the election of the rational progressive Barack Obama in 2012 and the populist right-winger Donald Trump in 2016. He found that in 48 of the 50 best-educated counties, more people voted for Hilary Clinton than had voted for Obama four years previously. Conversely, she got fewer votes in 47 of the 50 least-educated counties.

That applied largely independent of the incomes of people in those counties. In short: it was not economic disadvantage that drove them to move their votes to Trump; it was intellectual disadvantage. Education, not income, concluded Silver, was “the critical factor in predicting shifts in the vote between 2012 and 2016”.

The uneducated had their world view reflected back at them by Trump, and voted for it.

As with Trump, so with Pauline Hanson. In his recent Quarterly Essay The White Queen, David Marr noted there was “nothing particularly special about the pattern of employment for Hanson’s people”.

They were not deprived in a material sense. Indeed, overall they were “middling prosperous”. But though they were not poor, they were extraordinarily fearful of poverty – the thought that they could be left behind by rapid social and economic change. 

The standout demographic characteristic of One Nation voters was their lack of education. The typical One Nation voter didn’t finish school, much less, as Marr put it, “set foot in a university”.

Marr’s work relied on data culled from the most comprehensive, ongoing analysis of voter behaviour, the Australian Election Study. The numbers were prepared by the study’s co-director, Australian National University political scientist Professor Ian McAllister.

Following this week’s announcement that the government planned to save $2.8 billion through cuts to university funding and increases to student payments, The Saturday Paper went back to McAllister and asked him to crunch the numbers again, this time not on the voting patterns of the uneducated, but of the tertiary educated.

Sure enough, they showed that the more education people received, the more progressive their politics became.

At the 2016 election, the Liberal and National parties got 39.2 per cent of the vote overall, but less – 38.5 per cent – among those who held bachelor’s degrees, and less again – 36.1 per cent – among those with postgraduate qualifications.

Interestingly, Labor did no better among the university educated than among the general population. The comparative figures were 32.5 per cent among the general population, 32.3 among bachelor’s degree holders and 31.7 among postgrads.

This is a little surprising, but may be partly explained by the fact that Turnbull campaigned so hard on the importance of innovation – agility in a time of rapid change. The very things identified by his internal critics as having scared low-education voters into the arms of One Nation possibly bolstered the Coalition with those at the other end of the learning spectrum.

The big beneficiaries of the educated vote, however, were the Greens. Some 13.2 per cent of those with an undergraduate degree and 16.1 per cent of those with postgraduate qualifications voted for them.

“The total Green vote was just under 10 per cent, so they’re getting about half as many again among the tertiary-educated,” McAllister says.

Those figures include voters of all ages. When one refines the data further, to look at younger voters, the progressive skew is far more dramatic.

McAllister’s numbers show that for those under 30 with bachelor’s degrees, just 22.6 per cent preferred the Coalition, compared with 28 per cent for the Greens and 39.8 per cent for Labor.

More startling yet is the voting pattern of those in that age group with postgraduate degrees. In that cohort, the Greens were by far the preferred party. Almost 40 per cent of people – 39.8, to be precise – voted for them. Labor got 31.5 per cent and the Coalition parties a miserable 22.2.

No doubt some of these people will change their votes as they get older and richer. Nonetheless, the trend is ominous for conservatives.

No wonder the political right is concerned about the consequences of having an informed electorate, and that many yearn for a dumbed-down society.

In May 2013 the then-opinion editor for The Australian newspaper, Nick Cater, launched his book The Lucky Culture at a Melbourne function sponsored by the Institute of Public Affairs, the right-wing think tank with great influence in conservative political circles.

The biggest response to Cater’s speech came when he noted that the number of people with university educations was climbing ever upward in Australia. The IPA crowd booed loudly.

It was very revealing. The IPA is apt to portray its long advocacy of reform in tertiary funding through “the application of free market principles” – meaning full deregulation of university fees – as based on libertarian and meritocratic principles. Those boos, though, tell the truth: underlying it is the desire to restrict education to a wealthy and conservative elite.

Indeed, the IPA’s executive director, John Roskam, a former senior adviser to John Howard’s hard-right education minister David Kemp, also an IPA alumnus, argued in a piece for Fairfax in 2006 that students who did not qualify on merit for a university place should be able to buy their way in.

He advocated full deregulation of fees, writing: “The fact that some students might have their fees paid for by their wealthy parents while others will be forced to take out a loan is irrelevant.”

Roskam further opined it was not “necessarily a cause for concern that students might be deterred by the size of their future HECS debt”.

Nor does that view apply only to tertiary education. It applies to schools, too. The Howard government was notable for its attacks on the standards of public schooling. It responded by vastly increasing the funds allocated to elite private schools. Under the Kemp–Howard funding model, the money allocated to private schools increased six times as much as that for public schools between 1999 and 2006.

Howard himself enthusiastically endorsed the shift of students from public to private schools, not so much on the grounds that they achieved better academic results – the evidence was that they didn’t, when other socioeconomic indicators were taken into account – but because “government schools have become too politically correct and values-neutral”.

The problem with providing relatively more support to the privileged in the hope of shoring up conservative values was that it did nothing to improve educational outcomes overall.

Allocating more school resources to kids who already have the advantages of well-educated, supportive, well-off parents is like providing food aid to the well fed. It’s superfluous. Meanwhile, disadvantaged kids, increasingly concentrated in disadvantaged schools, are left intellectually hungry.

Coincident with Howard’s funding changes, Australia began to slide down the global rankings for school education. A comprehensive OECD survey of 76 countries in late 2015 ranked Australia 14th, behind places such as Poland, Estonia and Vietnam.

The top Australian school students, both public and private, compare well with the best internationally, but the gap between them and those at the bottom of the educational heap has widened to be among the biggest in the developed world.

Which brings us to Gonski. In 2010, the Gillard government commissioned a major review of school funding, chaired by businessman David Gonski. At the end of 2011, it came back with its recommendations: the establishment of a Student Resource Standard, providing base funding for every student, supplemented with loadings for disability, low socioeconomic background, school size, remoteness, the number of Indigenous students and lack of English proficiency. Funding should be provided on the basis of need, regardless of whether a school was private or public.

Implementation would require spending an extra $5 billion a year – a cost increased by Julia Gillard’s commitment that no school would be worse off. Thus, even though many elite schools were resourced far in excess of the Student Resource Standard, they were guaranteed funding increases.

Skipping over the complexities of the various deals done with various states and sectors, Labor’s attempt at implementation was messy and timid. But the Abbott opposition’s response to Gonski was deceptive. First they opposed it, and encouraged conservative state leaders not to sign up. Then, just before the 2013 election, Abbott declared the Coalition to be “on a unity ticket” with Labor on school funding. Immediately after winning, he abandoned the unity ticket and committed to drastically reduced funding. His cuts represented about $29 billion less over a decade, according to the government’s own figures, although the funding situation beyond next year was never entirely clear.

The first budget under Abbott and his treasurer, Joe Hockey, also proposed a 20 per cent cut to base funding for universities, to be made up by allowing them to increase student fees.

The government could not get its changes through the senate, despite many tweaks, threats and finessing of the policy by then education minister Christopher Pyne – the famous “fixer”. And so we have had several years of funding uncertainty for both school and tertiary education.

Fast forward to this week, and the dual announcements by the now education minister, Simon Birmingham, of new packages for both schools and universities. Birmingham is a rarity among Coalition ranks in that he was educated at a state school. He is also, according to education bureaucrats, a far more detail-oriented minister than his predecessor.

The full details of the changes are yet to be announced, but they are rather less draconian than those they replace.

On universities, instead of a swingeing 20 per cent cut to base funding, there would be a 2.5 per cent “efficiency dividend” applied to funding in 2018, and another 2.5 per cent in 2019.

Full fee deregulation is abandoned, but students would be required to meet a greater share of the cost of their education, up from 42 per cent now to 46 per cent. The income threshold for the repayment of student loan debt would be lowered from the current $55,000 to $42,000, which is just above minimum wage. And the indexation rate on student loans would be increased.

You could not say the tertiary sector is happy about the cuts, but they are a lot less unhappy than they were. And there are aspects they welcome: greater support for disadvantaged students and greater funding recognition of the importance of “work readiness” programs. Other measures, such as making some funding contingent on completion rates, are of more concern.

But the bottom line is that the government is shifting some $2.8 billion of the cost of higher education from its budget and onto universities and ultimately to students.

How you feel about this cost-shifting depends on whether you consider a university education to be a private or a public benefit. A couple of years ago, a Deloitte Access Economics report on the contribution of tertiary education to Australia’s prosperity found “the socioeconomic benefits accrue both to those directly engaging in university-led activities and to society at large. In some cases, and in research especially, it is broader society that is by far the greatest beneficiary”.

Deloitte valued the contribution of tertiary education to Australia’s productive capacity at $140 billion in 2014, of which $24 billion accrued to the tertiary educated themselves. The “spillover effects”, it found, meant that for every one percentage point increase in the number of workers with a university degree, the wages of those without tertiary qualifications rose 1.6 to 1.9 per cent.

So much for the claim by conservatives that it is not cause for concern if university fees deter people from studying. It is a concern not only in terms of equity, but in terms of the broader economy.

Now to schools. Labor went to the last election promising what it called “full Gonski”: $30 billion more in extra funding than the Coalition.

Birmingham’s announcement this week cuts that differential to $22 billion. But the new policy does at least make a start on tackling the issue the Gillard government was too scared to touch – reducing the taxpayer subsidy to overfunded non-government schools.

Birmingham announced that initially just 24 of the richest schools would see “negative growth”. But he also confirmed that 353 other schools, overfunded according to the Gonski Student Resource Standard formula, would be subject to “lower rates of growth” in funding over the decade “as we transition to that common point” of resourcing equity.

“Because it’s happening over a steady 10-year period, indexation means they won’t necessarily go backwards… They might grow in nominal terms but not necessarily in real terms over that 10-year period,” he said.

The protests of the non-government schools were predictable. They have always argued that they should get government money because they take pressure off public schools. It’s akin to arguing that if you drive your Mercedes-Benz to work instead of taking the bus, you should be subsidised for taking the pressure off public transport.

The Australian system of giving public money to private schools is unique in the developed world. Everywhere else, if you choose an elite education for your child, you pay for that choice.

The Greens, who oppose funding for private schools, welcomed the change and offered tentative support – in advance of consideration of its detail – for the government’s funding package, on the pragmatic basis that it was better than what was previously proposed.

The Labor deputy leader and shadow education minister, Tanya Plibersek, argued that by directing attention to the changes in funding for elite schools, the government was playing a “smoke and mirrors, pea and thimble” trick.

“I mean, truly, we’re talking about a couple of dozen schools, out of more than 9000 across Australia, and some pretence that this will actually make a difference to $22 billion of cuts across the system,” she said. “It’s laughable, it’s absolutely laughable.”

We’ll see if the conservatives in the government think it laughable. Tony Abbott already has warned it will be “pretty vigorously debated in the party room next week”.

He further said that it was “almost an article of faith in our party since Menzies that we were the party that promoted parental choice in education”.

Which, of course, is code for supporting funding for elite education.

Clearly, the fight over education funding will continue on many fronts: to get the university cuts past the senate, to get the school cuts past the party room, with the various states, and with public and private education providers themselves.

And, of course, a fight for votes.

Aislinn Stein-Magee, president of the Student Representative Council at the University of New South Wales, sees the funding cuts as part of a broader budgetary attack on low-income earners and young people. She cites the cuts to penalty rates, the tightening of Centrelink compliance and the robo-debt fiasco as other examples.

Faced with a budgetary problem on the one hand and the electoral problem on the other, the easiest targets are people who are less inclined to vote conservative anyway.

Ian McAllister’s election analysis supports that view. He notes there were “big age effects” at the last election, “driven by older people moving away from the Coalition because of the superannuation changes and pension cuts”.

The government cannot afford to further alienate its most reliable supporters, wealthy and over the age of 55. So it’s looking down the age and income scale for cuts.

The trouble is about 50 per cent of people under the age of 40 now have tertiary qualifications. They value education and it’s very dangerous to alienate them.

McAllister notes that it is now Labor Party policy to reduce the voting age to 16.

“If Labor gets in at the next election, you’ll suddenly have a much bigger cohort of people aged 16 to 22 or 23, all in school education or higher education,” he says.

“That’s a much bigger education voting bloc than you have now. And much more inclined to vote for leftish parties.”

Book learning is a real danger to conservative politics.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 6, 2017 as "The war on universities".

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