Tuesday, 5 July 2016

The $150million Pork Barrel Now

Jul 3 2016 at 2:08 PM Updated Jul 3 2016 at 8:25 PM By Tim Dodd

The election's uncertain outcome means we don't yet know whether the Coalition will be in a position to push ahead with its preferred option for university reform which would allow universities to deregulate fees in a limited number of designated "flagship" courses.

But there is one higher education promise that has no barrier in the way of implementation. That's the $150 million Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said he would give to the University of Tasmania to build new campuses in Launceston and  Burnie.

What reason is there to suppose this particular election promise is one that will stick? That's because Labor promised it, too. So no matter which side of politics forms the next government Tasmania's $150 million should sail through with bipartisan support.

At a time when there is no systematic plan for funding universities' capital needs – Labor's Education Investment Fund has ended and budget exigencies mean it won't be reactivatedwhy the rush to send money to Tasmania?

Well that would be because Tasmania happens to have a swath of marginal seats. Labor – sensing the Liberals' vulnerability in the state – made the $150 million pledge to the University of Tasmania  in April.

Turnbull, no doubt driven by mounting panic about his Tasmanian seats as polling day grew closer, matched the promise eight days before the election.

From the purely political point of view he should have saved his effort and saved taxpayers the money. It made no difference to the election result. The Liberals lost all three seats they held in Tasmania – Bass, Lyons and Braddon.

Setting aside the political calculus: from an education point of view does it make any sense to invest $150 million in new university infrastructure in northern Tasmania?

There's no doubt Tasmania has intractable education problems, and they are not just in tertiary education – they start in schools.

The proportion of its students who complete year 12 – 50 per cent compared to an average of 72 per cent Australia-wide – is abysmal. This means that fewer students have the preparation to go on to university to learn skills they need in the new economy.

Meanwhile Tasmania's traditional manufacturing jobs are disappearing. Just recently the Caterpillar plant in Burnie said it was closing. As a result, in the depressed north of the state youth are struggling to find good options either in education or jobs.

University of Tasmania vice-chancellor Peter Rathgen believes his rebuilding plan for his campuses in Launceston and Burnie will address this problem. He says it will build "a new model of higher education that is suitable for the north and north-west of Tasmania".

His new model aims to sidestep the problem of insufficient students finishing school by aiming to bring in more older students who realise the need for qualifications if they are to succeed in the workforce.

"What happens is they leave school at the end of year 10, find themselves jobs, and by their mid-20s, when they are starting to settle down with a family, they suddenly realise they have no career prospects," he says.

"That's the cohort of students who will come back to university to upgrade their skills, in many cases I suspect sponsored by their companies to do precisely this."

The university will offer them two-year associate degrees, which can lead on to full bachelor degrees, that are matched to workforce needs in areas such as tourism, health, aged care and early stage engineering.

It's a very laudable objective. But is this the best way for government and education institutions to deal with Tasmania's education deficit? Or is the university just levering the state's education problem to obtain funding for shiny new buildings when the money could be better spent in other ways.

Will the 20-somethings, who have only reached year 10 at school, be ready to move into higher education? Why not directly address the year 12 completion problem? Part of the problem is the state's system of senior secondary colleges. There too few of them where they are needed.

Or why not make a concerted effort to fix up vocational education in the state, which would be directly relevant to students who are struggling to finish school and could set them up for a university degree later?

And why not test the merit of the University of Tasmania plan in a pilot program before throwing in the blatant pork barrel of $150 million to build new facilities?

Professor Rathgen says the new building in Burnie and the new campus in Launceston, which replaces an existing one, are integral to the plan. It's hard to see why.

But what is true is that Tasmania has got yet another poorly thought through political handout. It's a pity it's not better directed to solving the state's very real problems.

ENDNOTE  The message in this story for Northern Tasmanians seems to be “be very very careful what you wish for and get ready to make your own luck” ... Someone-In-Power-Once 

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