Of all the parts of the Australian economy desperate for a change in government (in the hope of a change in treatment), let's go no further than education to find a sector on its knees.
From universities through to child care, education has been treated appallingly for the entirety of the Morrison government and is now barely fit for purpose. And what is its purpose? The vital mission of informing, supporting, skilling, and reskilling our children and our adults. To add insult to a litany of injuries, the Prime Minister says if the government is re-elected, then Alan Tudge will again be the minister for education. More about the invisible minister later.
What part does education play in this election?
Author and leadership expert Kirstin Ferguson spent last week devising what she calls the Leadership Language Index. Ferguson's been through all the speeches and transcripts published on the websites of the two leaders, looking for word frequency in each of those utterances since the election was called. God, it's depressing. Although Albanese has about half the word count, he's used the word education 57 times compared to Morrison, at just 29. The Opposition Leader has used the word school more often, science more often and child care way, way, way more often (113 instances to four). Of course, it's about signalling what matters. Neither of them is big on mentioning the word universities, so I'll do it for them.
Even before the pandemic hit, the Coalition sliced $10 billion from the budget of tertiary institutions. When the pandemic hit, public universities (that is, the ones most of our kids go to) were denied access to JobKeeper. Mind you, private universities had no trouble getting that money. As a result, thousands and thousands of jobs were lost - yes, many casual academics lost jobs but centuries of experience went out the door with permanent staff. As a result the sector has been beset with bullying complaints (that's what happens when middle management tries to do the bidding of management, without a shred of compassion or care), wage theft of breathtaking magnitude, chaotic governance (the vast majority of university councils are comprised of people who have just about zero experience in universities) and, after all this, extra pressure on staff left behind.
This will affect any student enrolled in any discipline - today, tomorrow, in the future. That, in turn, will impact our nation. Research funding within universities is dwindling unless it is linked to industry goals, and the government appears to have no interest in securing our biggest brains any thinking time. It's all about products and nowism. Innovation takes time and space, and both those elements must be funded without fear of government. It was only five minutes ago that our premier research funding body was forced to deny grants to excellent thinkers because Tudge's replacement, Stuart Robert, didn't like the look of studies into how young people interact with democracy, among others. He especially didn't like the look of anything to do with China. Heaven help us all.
As for vocational education, TAFE has seen 8800 full-time-equivalent staff positions cut since 2012. No wonder it's impossible to get a plumber or a roofer.
Public schools are underfunded by $6.5 billion a year, according to education economist Adam Rorris, whose research was funded by the Australian Education Union. In the meantime, private schools hopped on the JobKeeper train to the tune of $750 million, and got $4.6 billion of transitional funding after the Gonski 2.0 reforms. As AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe told Guardian Australia last month, the Coalition has "shamelessly established and consolidated a deep inequity in Australian education, to the detriment of the overwhelming majority of students who attend public schools".
And way before we even send our tiny tackers off to school, at the other end of the education spectrum we need an urgent rethink on the way we fund child care. Our amazingly qualified women - the most highly educated among the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index - don't work because they can't find child care, and if they can find a vacancy, they can't afford it. That seems like a terrible waste to me.
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This week saw, for the first time, better images for the Labor Party, when The Parenthood's Georgie Dent hosted the Opposition Leader at an event with well-behaved babies in a gorgeous house to hear parents talk about trouble at the mill - the exhausting effort of trying to get suitable care at an affordable cost. Good thing my own kids never went to such an event.
I don't know if Labor will be better on all these measures, but I am yet to see Morrison at such an event, surrounded by squally children and anxious parents. Instead, he's busy at manufacturing and engineering worksites. He's as hi-visible as his wannabe education minister is invisible.
Surely you can't have forgotten who Alan Tudge is? He's the bloke still on a cabinet salary despite being forced to step aside from his portfolio. He stood down after allegations surrounding his treatment of former staffer Rachelle Miller came to light. He and the Prime Minister constantly trumpet that Tudge has been cleared of any wrongdoing after an inquiry. Excuse me while I laugh. You can't have an inquiry without evidence from the person who allegedly suffered the wrongdoing. Separate from the inquiry, Ms Miller is reported to be receiving a settlement of $500,000 - although it is not clear exactly who did whatever would warrant such a settlement. Was it Tudge? Another minister? Can someone in this government please tell voters the truth?
Tudge said this week that he "stood down from being education minister some months ago now for family, for health reasons and [to] concentrate on my electorate, and that's exactly what I've been doing".
And then: "The Prime Minister has made clear that should we be re-elected and I'm in a position to step back up, then I'll do so."
But is he good enough to be the education minister in a country where education should be our top priority? I'm not convinced.
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