Petition appeals for honesty in public life

October 8, 2004

As Australians prepare to vote in tomorrow's federal elections, more than 400 senior academics - including 160 professors from every public university - have condemned the "dishonesty and duplicity" of Prime Minister John Howard's Conservative Government. The academics and university administrators said it was time to restore Australia's reputation for honest and independent government.

In a statement, they call on Mr Howard and Opposition leader Mark Latham "to pledge that they will insist on truth and genuine accountability in government".

Signatories come from a cross-section of disciplines and departments but there is no vice-chancellor among them. The statement follows similar calls for truth in government from 43 retired diplomats and former military officers, and 56 leading doctors. Each group claimed that the Government lied over the reasons it joined the coalition in the war in Iraq and its declaration before the last election that asylum-seekers had thrown children overboard.

"As teachers, researchers and administrators in the universities of Australia, we have a professional responsibility to attain the highest possible standards of integrity and accountability," the academics'

statement says.

"We have to be trustworthy. The same standards should be expected of everyone in public life. We are dismayed by the dishonesty that has characterised the conduct of the Howard Government."

Mr Howard and Labor leader Mark Latham made their pitch to voters last week. Neither mentioned higher education, partly because their plans have already been outlined in some detail.

The Government's university reforms were passed by Parliament last December, while Labor released its main proposals early in the campaign and its policy on research and development the day before Mr Latham spoke.

The Government has pledged an A$11 billion (£4.4 billion) increase over the next decade to provide an extra 34,000 student places over four years from 2005, increased grants for research, a learning and teaching fund (and a new institute), more money for indigenous programmes, new "learning scholarships" and a contentious "workplace productivity" programme costed at A$83 million.

The core of the plan is a semi-deregulated system that would allow universities to add top-up fees to existing Higher Education Contribution Scheme charges while offering more places to Australians willing to pay the full cost of their courses.

Labor would ban top-up fees and full-fee places but create 20,000 new places in universities by 2008-09. It would reduce Hecs fees for science and mathematics students by A$1,600 a year, fund an additional 3,100 new undergraduate nursing and 4,600 new teacher education places by 2008-09, and provide an additional A$86 million over three years from 2005 to improve the quality of teacher education.

Mr Howard surprised the entire education community by promising to spend A$300 million on building 24 federally run technical colleges to meet a skills shortages across the trades.

He said the neglect of trade education was the result of a widespread belief that "the only education worth having is a university education".

If the Conservative coalition is re-elected on October 9, it will be the first time the federal government has set up and operated its own technical colleges.

States and education unions would have no involvement in the no-fees institutions, whose principals and teachers would be employed on a performance-based wage system.

State Labor governments and the education unions said the plan was confusing and unworkable.

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