Unkindest cuts aren’t fiscal
The incompetence of the Labor government is illustrated by Central Queensland University, writes Ross Fitzgerald.
Back in July 2009, Bernard Lane reported in ‘The Australian’: ”Central Queensland University, once the most aggressive player in the degrees for visas market, is running out of cash and has little ability to withstand further blows to its high-risk business model, an official report warns.”
Then acting federal education minister Mark Arbib said the Commonwealth government was ”determined to address the decline in regional student numbers” and would work with the university and the state government ”to strengthen higher education in Central Queensland”.
Fast-forward to 2013 and we find Central Queensland University is again in trouble and its four capital city mini-campuses are chasing Australian domestic students in Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Sydney.
In 1990, the well-respected and profitable Capricornia Institute of Advanced Education became Central Queensland University. With Rudd and Gillard Labor seemingly asleep at the wheel, it now has operating losses that total well in excess of $50 million.
It is little wonder that Campbell Newman’s LNP government in Queensland is wary of promises of rivers of gold from federal Labor. The reality of Labor’s incompetence is that Queensland’s state Minister for Education, John-Paul Langbroek, has been left to do what he can to clean up the mess.
By the time Langbroek had got the Queensland Treasury auditors into Central Queensland University, federal Labor’s unwieldy Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education had already lost the plot. As a result, Central Queensland University signed new leases on capital city premises and shifted the capital city staff of the former C Management Services into Central Queensland University.
This effective bailout of the private company established to teach international students meant that CMS staff won a large pay rise as they shifted from private-sector pay rates to the much more generous public-sector pay rates that Central Queensland University had ”negotiated” with the National Tertiary Education Union.
With Campbell Newman’s Queensland Treasury audit completed, Langbroek had no other prudent choice than to support an immediate round of staff redundancies, while holding back on proceeding with a long-mooted proposal to merge the Central Queensland Institute of TAFE with the university.
Langbroek is sensibly holding back because he is far from persuaded that joining together two Labor financial basket cases to make one even larger basket case is any solution at all.
Even more importantly, Langbroek has not forgotten that when the Capricornia Institute of Advanced Education became Central Queensland University in 1990, it was tasked with continuing to serve the regional needs of Central Queensland. So he is seeking an answer to the question that Labor governments failed to ask: ”What the hell is a publicly funded regional university doing establishing mini-universities for domestic students in capital cities around Australia?”
For all Australians, the antics of Central Queensland University sound a warning bell. Our universities worked hard to clean up the excesses that flowed when entry to an Australian university degree was used as a thinly disguised back-door route to working in Australia and to Australian citizenship.
Today our universities are working hard to maintain standards – with tightening budgets. A struggle made yet harder by the latest ill-conceived Gillard government cuts to higher education.
The last thing we need is a race to the bottom with under-resourced degrees offered to Australian students in the rented premises of mini-universities in our capital cities. In time, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency will catch up with them. But, as we saw with cleaning up the visa scams, by then much damage will already have been done to the reputation of our universities and higher-education sector.
This is not only important to our value-added educational export sector, it is even more important to all those Australians who do the hard yards of obtaining a university degree. As we saw with shonky degrees for visas scams, when government drops the ball, all of us pay the price.
Inheriting state and federal Labor’s incompetence in further and higher education is the backdrop against which Campbell Newman and John-Paul Langbroek received Labor’s Gonski promises for better schools. It is, therefore, more than understandable that they are not rushing to sign up. Rather, in spite of the political costs, they are engaged in a thorough analysis of the pros and cons of buying into a policy of this incompetent Labor government.
Like the rest of Australia, Queensland needs all government policy and its implementation to show a due level of prudence. An evidence-based prudence that is essential to ensure sustainable investment in something as vital as education. It is an approach that Queenslanders and most Australians should welcome as a necessary return to sound governance after Labor’s reckless years.
Ross Fitzgerald’s memoir, ‘My Name is Ross:An Alcoholic’s Journey’ is now available as an e-book.
The Canberra Times, June 10, 2013. Plus Sydney Morning Herald & The Age online, June 10, 2013