No revolution in Rudd's plan for education

By Owen Richards

“While my portfolios can be a mouthful, I’ll be happy to be referred to simply as the minister for productivity”, said deputy PM Julia Gillard on December 3, explaining why she has been made minister for education and minister for employment and workplace relations, as well as minister for social inclusion in the newly elected federal Labor government. Gillard’s jest was symbolic of Labor’s real intentions with its so-called education revolution — further gearing the education system to meet the needs of big business.

Promising “computers for school children” and “trade centres in schools”, federal ALP leader Kevin Rudd’s “education revolution” featured prominently in Labor’s election platform, alongside his pledge to “tear up Work Choices”. Labor’s promises on education were a vote winner from a working-class public angered by the progressive stripping of public education under the 11-year Howard Coalition government.

Rudd Labor’s “education revolution” will involve a $2.5 billion, 10-year plan to build trades training centres in all Australian schools, the drafting by a National Curriculum Board of a kindergarten-to-year 12 curriculum with a focus on mathematics, science, English and history, along with an emphasis on Asian languages and culture. The much celebrated “computer for every student” — the National Secondary Schools Computer Fund — was a promise to connect every school to high-speed broadband internet and to spend $1 billion to fund a computer for every child between years 9 and 12.

As far as university education goes, full-fee degrees will be phased out and replaced by Commonwealth Supported Places. Scholarships for undergraduate and postgraduate students will be doubled.

‘Third wave’

None of these reforms go anywhere near a badly needed revolution in education. In fact, the computers and extra money that Rudd’s “education revolution” was sold with are merely a distraction from the real aims of the policy. Rudd’s “revolution” aims to continue the neoliberal economic agenda of the Hawke and Keating Labor governments of the 1980s and early ‘90s.

In his January 23, 2007, keynote speech at Melbourne University spelling out his education policy, Rudd emphasised the continuity of the ALP’s education policies with these earlier “reforms”. He boasted that in the 1980s and early ‘90s, federal Labor governments pushed through such neoliberal measures as floating the dollar, slashing company tax rates, eliminating tariffs, privatising the Commonwealth Bank and Qantas, and changing workplace laws to replace industry-wide bargaining with enterprise bargaining.

“This opening up of the Australian economy represented the first great wave of reform”, Rudd declared. “We followed this with a second wave of reform in the mid-1990s... It’s now time for a third wave of economic reform — a human capital revolution, an education revolution, a skills revolution.”

Thus, far from “revolutionising” education by a radical shift of resources towards the needs of students and teachers, the Rudd government proposes deepening the course set under the Hawke and Keating Labor governments and continued under the Howard Coalition government — making education more attuned to the needs of profit-making corporations and their billionaire owners.

Rudd’s education agenda is also totally in step with the recent record of state Labor governments, which have overseen school closures, decreasing enrolments in public schools as a greater proportion of federal government funds is channelled into private schools, and the consequent emergence of a two-tier school system based on ethnic and class divisions.

Teacher salaries are failing to keep up with inflation, and the NSW Teachers Federation is fighting an attempt by state education minister John Della Bosca to abolish the state-wide school staffing system — a move that would reinforce disadvantage by diverting teachers away from hard-to-staff remote schools.

Needs of big business

Rudd Labor’s education blueprint openly stresses its role in serving the interests of big business. The federal ALP’s policy document, Skilling Australia for the Future, not only repeatedly trumpets its business origins, but gloats at being more in tune with business than the education policy of the Howard government. It cites as its inspiration studies conducted by big business associations such as the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Australian Industry Group, the Business Council of Australia and the Reserve Bank.

The aim of this big business-backed “revolution” in education is to arrest lagging labour productivity and capitalist profitability as the minerals boom begins to slow, threatening an end to 17 years of uninterrupted economic growth of Australian capitalism. As Rudd put it in his January 2007 speech at Melbourne University, Labor’s education policy “is needed because our long-term prosperity is at risk. Already the warning signs are here. The strong productivity growth of the 1990s has slowed dramatically. This has been masked by one of the biggest resources booms our country has seen. A resources boom that won’t last forever. A resources boom that has also revealed a dramatic skills shortage.”

The economic rise of China and India has also fuelled fear in Australian business circles of their ability to compete in international markets for export revenue from the sale of services and manufactured goods. In the same speech, Rudd asked, “with the growing globalisation of production, how are we to prepare to compete with India and China who are producing millions of university graduates each year and who simultaneously are producing both technology-intensive and labour-intensive industries that are conquering the world?”

The economic rise of China, and the prospects of the modernisation of its large military forces challenging the US military might in east Asia, also evoked in Rudd the traditional Laborite fears of the “yellow peril”. He declared that “for the first time in the settled history of this country, our international and regional order will not be dominated by Anglo-Saxon powers with whom we have traditionally experienced a deep natural affinity of interests and identity. We are entering uncharted waters.”

Skills shortage

To overcome these internal constraints and external challenges to Australian capitalist profitability and imperial influence, Rudd’s education policy proposes investment in “up-skilling” the Australian work force, because Australia “needs a greater number of workers with higher skill levels, which better match up to the needs of industry” (Skilling Australia for the Future).
Australian capitalism’s shortage of skilled workers is real. Years of education funding cuts, coupled with declining rates of trades apprenticeships and low wages, have brought a decline in the domestic supply of skilled labour. The resultant constraint on production is also having the effect of driving up inflation. The response of the Australian ruling class to the shortage — Rudd Labor’s “education revolution” — represents a shift in government policy from boom-time short-term profit maximisation to a longer term strategy of raising workers’ skill levels to maintain Australian capitalism’s internal and regional stability in a climate of possible global economic slump.

This “up-skilling” of “human capital” is more akin to retooling a worn machine than it is to genuine, all-rounded, fulfilling education. For students it means further marketisation of education, and the increasing tying of the content and organisation of education to the needs of big business — a process that will sharply increase the education system’s narrowly vocational emphasis.

This however is nothing new. Schools and universities have long played the role of educational factories churning out skilled labour power for capital. That is, they are charged with converting young people into whatever cogs in the production machine are required by big business. For example, as the development of computerisation and information technology reduced the corporation’s demand for office workers with a generalised knowledge, the emphasis in curricula shifted from arts to science and technology.

As well, the education system under capitalism carries out behaviour moulding through long lists of rules, regulations, appearance and uniform norms and various forms of segregation — to produce people who “fit in” better with the authoritarian work requirements of corporate capitalism. And the values that are inherent in nearly every subject or course taught are the values of the capitalist profit system.

Rudd Labor’s “education revolution” aims to put the education system even more at the service of corporate capitalism, rather than the needs of working-class students. Rudd Labor’s refusal to overturn the political aspect of the Howard government’s “voluntary student unionism” legislation, which bans the spending of student union income on political activities, that is, on defending students’ interests, also makes that crystal clear.