Australia's enthusiasm for free-market competition in both the private and public sectors is rapidly being extended to post-secondary education and the nation's academics and teachers are alarmed at the likely consequences.
The conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard, backed by state administrations of the same political persuasion, has already introduced a partial privatisation policy for higher education. This seems certain to result in greater competition between universities for students and funds, and between the institutions and private organisations in other areas.
The Australian Vice Chancellors' Committee says universities could suffer if they are forced to compete with private groups in providing cheap accommodation for students, campus catering and book supplies, and even in operating distance education courses.
Under the government's "competitive neutrality" policy, public institutions will cease to enjoy advantages over private sector groups simply because they are government-run or owned. The vice chancellors have accused the government of having a "black and white" view of what commercial and non-commercial activities are, whereas they say the distinction is blurred in universities.
Australia's vocational education and training system is already well-down the deregulation path and is facing upheaval as lecturers in Technical and Further Education (TAFE) colleges prepare to fight the government's plans. The biggest education union in the country, the Australian Education Union, believes the TAFE system is under threat and that action must be taken in its defence.
The union has begun campaigning against the government's deregulatory policies on schools funding where the Commonwealth has effectively given a green light to a massive expansion of the private sector. Now the union is set to contest the government's plans for vocational education and training.
These goals, spelt out in a paper prepared by the Australian National Training Authority, propose that all TAFE colleges be commercialised and that public funds should be available competitively to both the colleges and private providers of training "to support the demand side of the training market through user choice".
The paper says that for the "supply side" of the training market to respond effectively to client needs, it will be necessary to open up the market to more providers by removing entry barriers, establish competitive neutrality between public and private providers, and change the way TAFE operates to make it more competitive and able to operate on a commercial basis where necessary.
The education union fears the public training system could eventually become completely privatised, with all public assets being sold off. It says that under the government's plans, deregulation would not so much involve giving TAFE colleges autonomy and encourage them to compete with each other, as "deregulate the process" so that individual businesses and industries run their own training programmes.
A union-commissioned report, Making TAFE Competitive, says TAFE institutions throughout Australia are struggling to maintain their position "let alone reposition themselves within a market-based VET system". The report argues that TAFE colleges should be structured along the lines of universities and should receive block grants on a triennial basis so they can compete with private providers of training on a much more equitable basis than at present.
For TAFE to be competitive in a training market, institutions have to have the same degree of independence as any other VET provider, the reports says.
The prospect that under a competitive neutrality regime both universities and TAFE colleges will eventually have to open their lecture rooms, laboratories and equipment to private competitors is causing concern on campuses. But that prospect may soon be a reality.