Jason Clare’s Accord triumph

The Accord report is a brilliant blueprint for a post-school education and training system which could transform the Australian economy over decades. (Future Campus cites the big ideas HERE).

But Jason Clare has a more immediate use for it. The Education Minister obviously understands that good policy is good politics and is adding Accord proposals to the Government’s arsenal of ideas for the next election. In the process, he is containing the aspirations of university lobbies for new money (and lots of it) while leaving them little room to complain.

Mr Clare’s initial commentary on the Accord is consistent with two of his core arguments in government. One is that higher education is the engine of social mobility and economic growth and Australians from lower SES backgrounds have a right to it. “Education can be and should be the great equaliser in an unequal world,” he told the Universities Australia conference on Tuesday.

The other is the necessity of a new skills system, breaking the artificial barrier between vocational education and higher education. “We are not going fix the skills shortages we have, and will have, unless they are more integrated,” he said.

These are now core Labor election messages that Australia needs a highly skilled, well-paid workforce which makes things. With Mr Clare, Skills Minister Brendan O’Connor spruiks them, and Industry Minister Ed Husic talks them up. 

As a way of giving voters in trade and blue collar occupations a good reason not to leak to fringe populists, or the Liberals (it has happened before) they are hard to beat.

Mr Clare is also keen on low cost, high-impact ideas in the Accord that are pitched to students, changing HELP terms, an ombudsman for students with authority over universities, paid practicums for nurses and teachers in training. “You sound to me as though you are making an argument here to the Expenditure Review Committee,” Michelle Grattan said to him in an interview.

And Mr Clare makes it clear he values university staff, pointing to Accord ideas on employment conditions. The minister also reminded UA that the HE future fund, recommended in the Accord, is a proposal from the National Tertiary Education Union.

In addition to their policy strengths, they are good ways to position Labor against the Greens which has long branded itself as the party of academics and students.  

As for the long-term Accord ideas on funding for teaching and research, Mr Clare has made no commitments. “Over the coming months the government will work through it in detail and determine what needs to be done first. … It’s a blueprint not for one budget but for the next few decades,”  he told UA.

Despite the commitment aversion, individual universities and sundry lobbies are all but endorsing whatever the government decides, sight unseen. Perhaps they so loathe the Liberals, after the previous governments’ Job Ready Graduates policy and sneering at research grants that they will take any Minister who is nice to them, on trust. 

Whatever the reason, this week’s response is so supportive that the Accord is now set in stone as a policy positive for the government, which won’t change when most formal responses to Accord recommendations, will be “agreed in principle,” with no long-term money mentioned. The core idea of a bigger national education and training system to grow the economy and increase individual opportunity is what voters will remember.

The challenge for Mr Clare is now to sell one national skills system so well, that the Coalition, and the States, adopt it as the national interest.

It can be done, just ask John Dawkins.



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