Labor seems to be backing cheap degrees for the well off not the working class, Vice-Chancellor Professor Greg Craven writes.
In politics, a good scare campaign beats a policy debate every time. Voters are easier to manage with their pants wet.
So it is with Labor's campaign against Christopher Pyne's plan to deregulate university fees.
Many Australians now believe getting an arts degree will cost more than a buying a Renoir.
The only difficulty with scare campaigns is if some political colleague lets the scorpion out of the bag, revealing that your own plans are even scarier than your opponent's.
Opposition education spokesman Kim Carr came dangerously close to performing the dance of the scorpion in a speech last week.
The problem is access to university actually depends on two planks. The first is affordability.
This is where Labor is battering Pyne over his plan for fee deregulation. But the second is participation how many university places there are. There is no point in UNI being cheap if you cannot even get in.
In Australia, entry to university is facilitated by a "demanddriven system". Put simply, if you get the marks, you go to university. Gone are the quotas that limited institutions to a certain number of students, and closed the doors to thousands of Australians.
Since 2011, hundreds of thousands of students have benefited from this system. Introduced by Labor and maintained by the Coalition, it is one of Australia's greatest achievements in higher education opportunity.
Problem is, Carr doesn't like it, as he made clear in his speech.
Admittedly, Carr did formally endorse demand-driven higher education, and denied any intention to re-cap the system, and for this we can be thankful. But he showed all the enthusiasm of a baby forced to kiss a politician.
After the ritual endorsement, everything Carr said about university mass participation was negative. It promoted enrolment of lower ATAR students, especially in teaching and nursing.
It encouraged enrolment in areas of low employer demand. It did little to promote equity. It did not address labour force demands in science and technology. And, besides, we've reached the participation targets, so why not stop?
With endorsements like this, who needs a critic?
There are two problems with Carr's charge sheet.
The first is policy. Remarkably, we appear to have a Labor education spokesman who actually wants to restrict university access in the name of that old elitist ally, "quality".
A reasonable interpretation of Carr's position, taken with his adamant opposition to Pyne's price reforms, suggests he is terribly concerned a student from fashionable Carlton should not pay too much for a law degree from Melbourne, but does not care much whether a potential nurse from Penrith can get in to the university of Western Sydney.
The second problem is Carr's diagnosis of Australian higher education is wrong.
Take nursing and teaching students with ATAR entrance scores of less than 40. How big is this horde of mediocrity? On 2013 figures, there are 424 across tens of thousands of enrolled students.
Across the entire university system, the figure is 1.5 per cent and Carr can bet his copy of Das Kapital that nearly all are enrolled through equity or disadvantage programs.
On workforce demand, Carr does not descend to examples. But as a man of the Left, he must know Australia's demand for teachers will boom with increasing enrolments and teacher retirements, and an ageing population will require thousands of extra nurses.
Yes, more scientists and engineers would be nice, but the problem here is enrolment patterns at school, not university policies.
You cannot conscript mathematicians. And yes, increasing disadvantaged enrolments is hard but, numerically, the great growth in university participation has allowed many more disadvantaged students to attend university.
As for having met our participation target of 40 per cent, Carr needs to get out more. In classy urban locales, he's right. But try the non-latte belt: rural Queensland, western Sydney, Gippsland, where rates languish in the teens.
It probably is fortunate that other Labor luminaries Chris Bowen and Julia Gillard, for example still celebrate university participation as one of their greatest achievements. Like Pyne, they understand not only the policy but the politics.
Access to university has created a major constituency. Concentrated in politically dynamic areas such as western Sydney are parents who never thought their kids would go to UNI, the kids themselves, their siblings and relatives.
Bill Shorten's dream of a higher education election as a memorial to Gough Whitlam will collapse like a punctured campaign balloon in the face of any attempt to short-change this army of opportunity. Kim Carr takes them on at Labor's peril.
This article first appeared in The Australian.
Page last updated: 2017-06-29
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