How will Jason Clare sell equity as the key to Australia’s future?

Universities Accord Burning Question #1

I love equity. It is very important to me personally and something that most people in the HE sector hold dear.

The Australian Universities Accord is a sprawling, ambitious road map to a better future for post-school education and more importantly post-school graduates. However, it is also a document full of holes.

If I was in one of those schlocky 90s changing bodies movies and woke up tomorrow as Jason Clare (yes, I realise Jason would wake up disappointed, lets not dwell), then I would be bending my mind to the over-riding challenge. How do I stitch up the loose ends and possible attack points to create an Accord action plan that Australia is going to want to buy.

Two other E’s

The challenge is not equity per se. It is not exactly a sexy concept, it’s all about everyone getting a fair go. But the immediate threat is two other competing concepts which unfortunately also start with ‘E’ – Equality and Excellence.

Equality sounds nice, but leaves me, walking around in Mr Clare’s shoes, woefully exposed. Ever since Pig Iron Bob Menzies kept labour out of power with reds under the bed themed jibes, there have been a procession of conservative dog whistlers ready to shriek as soon as they scent anything that could be contrived as socialist (or worse, in the Australian electorate’s eyes, communist). So while we might have a playground-level commitment to equality, the average Australian is really keen to see their house values rise, their shiny new cars parked in the driveway and a lifelong satisfaction that they have ‘made it’, measured by their ascent above the financial plight of others.

Similarly, equality in academia is anathema. All those clever clogs who have been getting an A on their paper for as long as they can remember don’t want their hard work to be washed away with a utopian commitment to everyone else also getting a gold star at the end of class. The bell curve is clearly entrenched as a grading tool. Parents don’t give their right eyeball for school fees in the hope that little Charlotte comes home with the same grades as the family that drives the town’s last Commodore.

So equality is potentially a slippery slope to electoral death, and a potential attack point (‘diluting standards / choking a once-great sector’ etc).

The second issue is excellence. As mentioned above, Australian voters like excellence. They want to see action if we are slipping down the rankings on the world stage (any rankings) and they want reassurance that we are still the clever country, even though we forgot to claw back almost any of those giant profits that other people made from digging up our rocks over the past couple of decades, and we think that better education shouldn’t be linked to paying more.

Excellence is more of a problem than equality. It had little airplay in the report relative to equity. And our biggest and richest universities are built not just on excellence of the people within their ivory towers, but also the aspiration of students clamouring to get inside and drink in that rarified air. Everyone knows our ‘best’ universities and our struggling ones – and yet this strategy proposes throwing money everywhere, but proportionately more at many of the strugglers. This is going to be difficult for the wealthy behemoth institutions to accept.

Not all beestings are created equal

Which brings us to the picture. I love equity and excellence. I want to love equality as well, but I am not sure it fits. Because you see, I also love the Beestings in Corryong’s bakery. Firm, unsoggy base, custard filling the colour of pure joy, just the right amount of sugar and vanilla in the cream and then a crackle when you bite through the almonds and sugar on top.

It is a great credit to Australia that most in our community can afford a Beesting when they stop in Corryong on their annual pilgrimage to the NSW South Coast. But not all Beestings are created equal. There are many you should not waste your cholesterol count on.

My desire for equality keeps me bravely purchasing most beestings I find, but my overriding love of excellence means that my only repeat purchases tend to be at Corryong. Corryong is certainly remote and rural, possibly low SES and I know nothing of the origin stories of the bakers and I am delighted that my Beestings have something of an equity origin story, but the reason I post them on Instagram is because of the excellence. The reason trip advisor is popular is because of excellence. The reason I go to the same beach every year is because I think it is the best.

Without incorporating excellence into the equity story, the country road trip is just an unnoticed tale of car quizzes and Spotify choices through a familiar landscape. It is an incidental initiative, not a part of our highlight reel.

Assumption leaps

This leads to my second major challenge as the new Jason-Clare-for-a-day. The assumption leaps in the report appear substantial and will be difficult to sell to voters. Bridging these assumption gaps is going to be critical to build momentum for the Accord.

I’ll be more concise here:

1.       The report says there is pressure across the system, low demand from students, casualisation of staff and financial strain. (Exec Summary page 1). Anyone who glances across the Tasman will observe a sea of red in balance sheets and a system in crisis. Meanwhile our largest institutions have managed to achieve substantial surpluses in recent years. While I understand that internally many people are under strain and many institutions facing tough decisions, this has not translated to public perception.

2.       Having identified that the system must change, the evidence cited is workforce shortages – in schools, childcare centres etc. The report then says “The major problems we face – including threats to our social cohesion – are ultimately problems for which a big part of the answer is tertiary education.” (p.1)  You and I, lovers of the sector, agree with that, but this point is far from clear in the electorate. Won’t the robots keep me entertained instead of nurses now ai is here? Why don’t we run services more efficiently and then we wouldn’t need more people? Aren’t all those immigrants taking the services (never mind that they are actually saving our bacon by filling major workforce gaps)? Do you really need a degree to drive a mining truck, hauling more stuff out of the ground?

3.       “Equity also provides an answer to meeting Australia’s skills needs.” (p.2) Aside from the also that seems to have slipped through the proofers’ fingers in this sentence, here is the pointy end of the challenge. If my mum slips over in five years, do I want an excellent nurse or an equity nurse to be looking after her. (actually she would go for the equity nurse every time, she would think it much more interesting, but she is assumed to be atypical). If I get my car fixed, do I choose to go to the mechanic who has had extra support to complete their course, has struggled to find enough money for food most of his life and dropped out of school at year 10? What if my child’s English teacher needed support all through uni with dyslexia? None of these scenarios should be a problem for us. We are the land of the fair go right?

A dangerous assumption

Ultimately, the initial challenge for my new Jason Clare persona is not money, or complexity, or being right.

The big challenge is stitching together a persuasive narrative that will get the Accord out of the starting blocks, amidst a range of assumptions that the electorate won’t necessarily share. Australians must be convinced that they must pay more this year and for decades to come, because the people hitherto excluded or disadvantaged in our communities are actually the heroes who will secure our nation’s future prosperity after getting extra help to study.

If you have worked in the sector for a year or more, you will know the power of the equity argument and also the challenge in bringing so many more people along on the educational ride. However, it would be dangerous to assume that argument will automatically have power with the marginal voters in a handful of electorates who will choose our Governments over the next decade.



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