The Guardian 7 December, 2005

Pre-school to university:
Government control and privatisation

Peter Mac

The Howard Government is moving to ensure rigid conservative control, and to maximise the operation of private companies in all levels of public education.

The pre-school education firm ABC Learning is attempting to establish primary schools. It plans to open a primary school in the NSW Hunter Valley under the banner of a subsidiary firm, Independent Colleges Australia.

ABC Learning recently won notoriety over a particularly frugal preschool luncheon policy. It was also banned from operating in Queensland after its managers predicted enthusiastically that they could generate a 20 percent profit by directing their pre-school students into their primary schools.

But this has not deterred the company. By describing Independent Colleges as "not-for-profit" they’ll now receive hefty funding from the Howard Government, and further funding from State and Federal Governments for each student. The firm plans to build schools elsewhere in NSW and in other States.

Greens’ education spokesperson John Kaye denounced these thinly-disguised commercialisation initiatives as: "… an insidious attempt to capture children at a young age and entrench them into a corporate education model."

NSW Teachers Federation President Maree O’Halloran called on the NSW Government to "see through the deception and ensure that this school did not get a cent of public money."

Education as welfare policy enforcer

The Howard Government has once again taken the opportunity to cut welfare payments, by linking school attendance to welfare.

At the Western Australian outback town of Halls Creek, the Government is cutting family welfare payments if children do not attend school. Although the truancy level has dropped, Dennis Eggleton, Chief Executive of the Aboriginal Legal Service, commented: "It’s using punitive methods to get a result where there are underlying social problems."

Some Federal ministers agree. However, rather than eliminating the practice, the Government now plans to apply it nationwide!

On to university

Next March the Howard Government will announce which Australian universities will receive a $150 million funding package.

Funding qualification is dependent on meeting guidelines for introducing more casual employment and impeding unions from organising university staff.

The funding allocation was to have been announced two weeks ago. The delay makes it virtually impossible for the universities to plan their budgets.

However, this does not worry Nelson, who has now also made payments of a 2.5 percent loading granted last year conditional on conformity to his employment requirements.

Opposition education spokesperson Jenny Macklin stated: "Nelson … is prepared to go to any lengths to crush dissent and further his ideological obsessions."

Some university authorities are confused as to the actual funding requirements. However, any institution which fails to achieve a non-union deal with its staff, such as the University of Ballarat, will certainly not receive the funding.

…and afterwards

For a second year the Howard Government has interfered in the allocation of university postgraduate research grants. The grant list is prepared each year by academic pier review group, the Australian Research Council (ARC), but this year Nelson vetoed grants for seven projects.

He has not disclosed the projects he rejected, nor why. However, three were on a "hit-list" of projects unacceptable to conservative columnist Padraic McGuiness, whom Nelson appointed to the ARC’s quality and scrutiny committee.

Nelson’s actions threaten the independence of the ARC and the peer-review system. Projects with the potential to boost business profits will certainly be favoured over others. (Five of Nelson’s rejected projects were said to be in the humanities, two in social sciences.)

Left-leaning projects, and critiques of government policy, will almost certainly be rejected. In many cases researchers for "unacceptable" projects will not bother to apply for a grant. Others will simply abandon their projects.

Some assessors have threatened to resign from the ARC. The Chief Executive of the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, John Mullarvey, has said the Minister should state his reasons for rejecting specific projects.

However, it is possible that the Government actually wants its Research Quality Framework organisation to take over the ARC’s role, and that in order to achieve this Nelson would mount a campaign to ridicule the less commercial projects, thereby humiliating the ARC in order to justify its dissolution.

Where is our education going?

The Government’s education policy has the potential to cripple or even eliminate the "free, universal and secular" state education systems. The Government’s attempt to control postgraduate research selection is likely to destroy our well-respected international reputation for academic excellence.

The move to introduce the appalling "intelligent design" creation theories into science classes (with Nelson’s blessing), is the modern equivalent of education initiatives which led to the terrible US "monkey trials" of the 1920s.

The only way to fix all these problems is to campaign against these reactionary initiatives, and then to remove the Howard Government at the first electoral opportunity.

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