In the policy reforms proposed for higher education by the current government; there is a lack of coherence and consistency. For example, when HECS was increased by 25%, teaching and nursing courses were exempted because of shortages in those professions. A chronic shortage of doctors however is not addressed using the same logic.
The large HECS increase was rationalized by the claim that graduates enjoyed the potential for higher wages and should therefore give something back to the community; an argument seemingly consistent with the doctrine of ‘mutual obligation’. Almost immediately, the government set to work on Industrial Relations (IR) reforms that would erode the claimed potential for higher wages. Simultaneously, the attack on student organisation was renewed with vigour. Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) policy, we were told, would enhance choices — like IR, it was common sense. The Minister for Education, Science and Training even claimed to be from a planet called Common Sense!
VSU is an erosion of the right to be heard, to be brought about by removal of an established democratic forum. The democracy of Aristotle’s Athens obliged all citizens to participate in the forum. Opting out was possible, but incurred social stigma: non-participants enjoyed the benefits of collective decisions, and were consequently viewed as free-riders or bludgers. The philosophy of VSU is diametrically opposed to this form of democracy, claiming that the traditional forum should go, and that those who want to participate should ‘opt-in’ to a new type of ‘forum’, one that is not universally inclusive.
An important function of student associations is to provide a training ground for negotiation skills. Negotiation skills are explicitly taught at universities only in certain courses, for example, law, marketing, and human resources management. One negotiation skill, bargaining, has not been acceptable cultural behaviour in Australia. Student associations have provided an opportunity for learning bargaining strategies. VSU will close down this opportunity for many students.
The IR reforms proposed by the Howard Government will force job applicants to bargain for pay and conditions for most of their working lives. Few will have the training necessary to include even important items. They will face a negotiator who is employed for their expertise in bargaining and other negotiations skills.
Don Aitken has pointed out that politicians of all creeds pay at least lip service to equality of opportunity. Yet here equality is obviously lacking, and despite radical reform to both education and workplace culture, there exists no policy to address this inconsistency. With unequal education in what could become legislated common practice – the bargaining of a workplace contract – there exists the enforcement of unequal opportunity. The government argues that this is not the case, because the employee only needs to use their ‘common sense’. If such bargaining is in reality ‘common sense’, then why is there a demand by employers for trained negotiators?
Graduates incurring increased HECS debts in the name of mutual obligation are entitled to education that guarantees them the opportunity to earn the enhanced wages that formed the basis of argument for those increases. Government has a corresponding mutual obligation to ensure that there can be no degradation of opportunity by legislated disadvantage.
Corrective policy is affordable and practical; it is a simple matter of extending the education now given to some students (e.g. in human resources management courses) to all.
The existing courses could themselves be extended to cover issues such as the balance of work with other commitments such as family life. Training for individual bargaining skills would cover alternative collective arrangements (in line with the emphasis on choices in the government’s current media campaign). The ACTU and employer unions could not object to broad public education that enhanced the ‘common’ in ‘common-sense’. Given the present emphasis on bargaining and ‘flexibility’, this cultural training should be extended in time from tertiary to secondary and even primary education.
Coherent education policy is a good place to start making good sense common. Equality of opportunity is already common sense, and education policy should consistently reflect that value. The danger of creating further social division through increasing inequality of opportunity is real, and not good sense. For students viewing the culture of common sense, the reality is that governments ought to lead by example. The result should always be the common good.