Saturday, 17 November 2007

Failure to invest in higher education is irresponsible economic management

Our government has been given strong, expert advice on the need for increased investment in research and education - and not from a bunch of whinging out-of-touch academics, as Julie Bishop would have us believe.

Here are some of the government's advisors: Mr Hutch Ranck Managing Director, DuPont (Australia) Limited; Dr John Bell Associate Director, The Allen Consulting Group; Dr Graeme Blackman Managing Director, Institute of Drug Technology; Ms Mara Bún former Director, CSIRO Business Development; Dr Megan Clark Vice-President Technology, BHP Billiton; Professor Peter Høj Chief Executive Officer, Australian Research Council; Mr Tony Pensebene Associate Director, Economics and Research, Australian Industry Group...and more.

What they had to say more than a year ago is quite terrifying. They had a really straightforward brief, really - just to talk to the government about the impacts on Australia of economic growth in India and China, which is "is focussing the attention of all major economic powers". Here is the graph the Prime Minister and education minister were shown:

(Source: PMSEIC Working Group on Asia presentation)

This situation, of course, provides Australia and everyone else with opportunities to benefit from participating in a new economy, which is driven largely by the sheer size of these emerging powers and markets. The opportunities for Australia depend on linkages internationally, formed through exports. Australia's exports, in turn, are dependent on good research and development and well-trained people who can implement the latest ideas in real workplaces. Research and education are the foundation of economic development.

Just in case politicians failed to understand this argument, they were given this image:
(Source: PMSEIC Working Group on Asia Report)

The problem is, as we know, Australia has fallen well below the OECD average for investment in research and higher education. This is a particularly large problem, because China and India are seriously investing in these areas - meaning they will soon be able to do very nicely without us, thank you very much...and in fact we will probably need them, given our own skill shortages.

On creating linkages (the second tier of that highly complex pyramid), the report said:
Australia is competing for attention against all other global players. Other OECD countries are making a much greater effort to develop science and technology-based links with China and India (see Appendix 4). Clearly we cannot compete on scale but we must significantly improveour investment in these relationships if we are to make an impact.
Just in case the Education minister was still thinking that these people asking for additional funding for universities were actually whinging academics in disguise, she and the PM were told that their good friemd George Bush is doing it: increasing investment in research and higher education to $136 Billion over 10 years. [As an aside, rumour has it that Mr Bush was convinced to do this due to racist inclinations - fear of China. It has been suggested that perhaps if we cultivated some racist sentiments against these neighbours of ours, perhaps we might see some real investment here.]

The message was pretty clear (remembering this was more than a year ago):
When the working group started, we focused on business opportunities and threats. But during our deliberations and interactions, we unanimously came back to the same premise – without a strong education foundation no strategy is sustainable.
And so were the consequences:
The prognosis is alarming...not only do we not have the capacity to improve our position as a knowledge economy, our ability to sustain our current position is doubtful.
One would think that our economically responsible Prime Minister would be concerned about this, correct? Well, according to rumour, he was, and asked the education minister to look into this and report back. Apparently she reported back, simply stating what the government is currently spending on research and higher education. [She has since consistently publicly declared that Universities are extremely well-funded, even describing the research-based opinions of leading researchers in Higher Education as 'out of touch', making it a little worrying about the basis on which she makes decisions - see]

So, all these people work together to make a report that says Australia is in big, big trouble economically unless we invest in research and education.

The government fails to act. And yet claim to be economically responsible.

What (almost) seems worse, is Kevin's "this irresponsible spending has to stop" line means that it looks like under a change of government things won't get much better. Though I would prefer to be disappointed in a politician who at least says higher education is important. Of course he can't say that "this irresponsible lack of spending has to stop", but it would be more accurate.

Shouldn't politicians be held accountable for this? The government has been given clear and credible advice that to be economically responsible means investing in research and education. They haven't ... and it appears they wont.

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