Opinion- 29 October 2007




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Harry Robinson: Big Bad Piggybank


What's a million here or there? Or a billion? Does it matter where the money goes? It's been going everywhere during this election campaign. Hospitals, roads, schools, roundabouts, rain water tanks, roof top solar heaters, drought relief, land for housing .. The list seems endless unless you think of tertiary education, commercial research and development. These are the orphans of electoral politics and the reason looks clear -- for every researcher there are hundreds of hospital patients, for every magnetic lecturer there are thousands of home buyers. Put the other way around, there are all too few votes in science and higher education.

To deepen the gloom, we have had an anti-intellectual government for a decade and more. Universities have been put on short rations. The 150% tax rebate on r & d was sent to the sin bin. Infrastructure in ports could not keep up with demand for coal and iron.

Opportunities were missed and Her Majesty's loyal Opposition was ineffectual. The Labor Party was and still is a wimp in this area.

But we had "good economic management" or so Mr Howard and Mr Costello told us. Treasurer Costello built up the biggest piggybanks in the nation's history, so big that billions were put aside for a future fund, tax cuts were promised although the promises were reflections from smoky mirrors. What is the accounting phrase? "Cash at bank" -- isn't that the way they describe idle money? We need some cash but in the billions it has all the power of a mountain of marshmallow. As an economic manager, Mr Costello made a fine book keeper. He taxed high, pushed debt down low, parked his accumulated surpluses where they could do no harm and very little good.

A more dynamic government would have struck a point at which the national debt was reasonable, say at $30 billion, and ploughed incoming tax into profitable fields. We'd have had wealth production from railroads or business innovations, or --- save us! -- universities. We would be a richer nation today.

One outfit which has grown impatient with static economic management is the Business Council of Australia, yes a peak body normally expected to back governments of the coalition hue. Even the BCA wanted action as became clear in the second week of the election orgy when their president, Mr Michael Chaney, called for hefty investment in education (they want the most productive staffers) and high pay for teachers. High pay for teachers? Was the man mad?

Professor Alan Robson, chair of the Group of Eight, would not think so. Almost to the day of Mr Chaney's heresy Prof Robson was putting out a media release to state the pragmatic value of tertiary education. Essential in today's world of competitive knowledge, He said and went on:

"A tertiary qualification has become the entry ticket to the knowledge economy, and solutions to the world's major problems are underpinned by scholarly analysis and creativity," he said.

"However, the current policy architecture affecting Australia's universities, designed many decades ago, no longer suits contemporary circumstances. It will not serve Australia well into the future.

"Australia's higher education system remains under-resourced and over-regulated yet under-planned and, hence, insufficiently differentiated to cater for changing needs.

"There are great opportunities to be seized by designing a new policy framework that will unleash Australia's intellectual potential in the global knowledge society. Australia's future competitiveness requires a wider vision of our possibilities and less constraint of our capabilities."


All this is true but, with due respect to Professor Robson, the style is so muddy as to guarantee glazed eyes in media offices, even in the upmarket editorial offices of such journals as The Fin Review or the Melbourne Age. The cause needs a new spin doctor.

That aside, the argument is right: money in piggybanks earns a pittance in interest, money well directed to higher education, research and development, innovations will pay solid profits. Why have we been ignoring the fact that the brain bank pays many times more than the piggybank?

In the name of perspective, let's remember that universities are not only for creating wealth. They are also for art, poetry, history, drama, music -- everything that enriches the human spirit.

Harry Robinson -- for 25 years worked in television journalism in Oz and the US and was for several years air media critic for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun-Herald.