As in 2019, this year’s 1 January release of old Cabinet papers reveals new details about the Coalition’s internal debates about higher education. However, this time I am less of a disinterested observer, as the 1998 and 1999 papers made public today include the time when I was higher education adviser to the then education minister, Dr David Kemp.
There are several topics discussed – the government’s response to the West review of higher education, voluntary student unionism, and the 1999-2000 Budget. For me the common thread, apart from the portfolio area, is Dr Kemp’s efforts to maintain, despite competing fiscal and political pressures, the policy and political conditions needed for an intellectually coherent higher education policy. He was headed to a major higher education reform Cabinet submission later in 1999 (not in this official release, but it was leaked twenty years ago).
When the Howard government came to office in 1996 its first priority was bringing the Budget back into balance. In higher education, this led to cuts to per student subsidies in higher education with offsetting increases in HECS charges, cuts to student places, and a reduced income threshold for repaying HECS debt.
As I have observed before, often the Coalition ends up with not so much a higher education policy as a fiscal policy with implications for higher education. But in 1996 they knew that quickly-made budget-driven decisions were not the basis of long-term policy, and commissioned a broader examination of higher education policy, which turned into the West review. (One of my tasks as a ministerial adviser was liaising with its chair, Roderick West, a retired school headmaster with no public policy experience. The technocrats were running rings around him, but you have to admire someone who can incorporate quotations from ancient Greeks and Romans into an Australian government policy report, as he did in his chairman’s foreword.)Read More »