I think Kevin Donnelly probably has a point when he suggests in The Australian today that Rudd Labor is borrowing a bit from Blair Labour on education (not sure this is necessarily a bad thing anyway). This point, however, is just a bit silly:
Even the rhetoric is the same.
Just compare Blair’s exhortation, “Our goal: to make Britain the best-educated and skilled country in the world education, education, education”, to Kevin Rudd’s statement: “We need to lift our vision and start to imagine an Australia where we turn ourselves into the most educated economy, the most educated society in the Western world.”
Frankly I would be much more concerned if a political party was not interested in making their nation’s education system the best humanly possible, than about any supposed plagiarisation of rhetoric. Of course, Donnelly seems averse to any education agenda that involves the state providing solutions to problems, so I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that the Rudd Government’s agenda has stuck in his craw. To the wolves, public school students; to the wolves.
One of the most publicly prominent foundation stones of Federal Labor’s “education revolution” policy program was the so-called National Secondary School Computer Fund. Under this policy, announced during the November 2007 election campaign, a Rudd Labor Government would theoretically provide access to a dedicated computer for every Australian student in Years 9 – 12. Secondary schools across the country would be able to apply for capital grants of up to $1 million each from the government for funding either the upgrade of existing computers or purchase of new computers for this purpose. Although the actual educational benefits of this policy are a little on the nebulous side, the summary policy principles were sound, and one would have to assume that it was a potentially vote-turning policy for the then Rudd Opposition going into election day.
Unfortunately, there is one aspect of this policy program that leaves something to be desired from the perspective of no doubt many schools and of course the state and territory governments; namely, the funding of second-order costs for all this new kit. Who pays to install, configure and maintain all these new computers that the Rudd Government wants to parachute into schools? Who pays the increased electricity bills that will no doubt result from all this new energy consumption? How will all the computers be housed, bearing in mind that many secondary schools across the nation suffer from a lack of teaching space as it is, let alone if they have potentially over a hundred new computers to support? The NSW Government, struggling as it is at the moment with a range of financial and political issues, has just in the last week announced itself as the first to withdraw its support for the program. It remains to be seen whether the Rees Government’s rebellion will lead to something of a domino effect amongst the other state and territory governments, but clearly Federal Education Minister Julia Gillard and the Prime Minister need to have a good hard think about how the potential fallout from a collapse in support for the program should be managed.
As I am sure any senior manager in a decent-sized government department or business can tell you, hardware procurement is usually one of the less risky and more manageable components of an organisation’s information technology services. Where costs tend to blow out on IT projects is when mid to long-term factors like the costs of providing ongoing support and maintenance are not factored into the equation. The phrase “a computer for every school kid” seems like a simple enough proposition and appears from the very outset to be quite an attractive one, but one does have to wonder whether the mid to long-term costs of this proposition were adequately investigated by the Rudd Opposition before it embarked on this policy.
Is it fair and reasonable to expect that the state and territory governments have to cough up the money to install, support and maintain all the new hardware that the federal government has dumped on them?