Sunday, January 13, 2008

Student unions on brink of extinction

Great news! They were just a honeypot for Leftists

STUDENT union membership has plummeted by up to 95 per cent since the Howard government made it voluntary, leading to a widening gap in student services between elite and regional universities. National Union of Students (NUS) president Angus McFarland said while some of the more wealthy universities were able to supplement the lost income from union fees, that was not the case for other, less well-off institutions. "It's meant that we've seen a widening of the gap between the rich universities and poor universities," he said. "UNSW and Sydney University can afford to prop it up. But at Charles Sturt University, Wollongong University and the University of Western Sydney, we've seen that there's had to be a significant demise in income and organisations are struggling."

Mr McFarland said that at Wollongong University, the student newspaper was now run entirely by volunteers, the second-hand book shop had closed and a child-care subsidy provided had been removed. At the University of Newcastle, student-association run entities had cut staff numbers by 65 per cent, the events budget had been slashed, there was no more free Centrelink and tax advice and a computer lab has been closed. At the University of Western Sydney, Mr McFarland said funding for clubs and societies had been reduced by at least 50 per cent, a shuttle bus service had been closed and most of the staff positions were gone.

Federal Education Minister Julia Gillard said the Rudd Government would work with universities "to restore vital student services that the previous Liberal government trashed". "The Minister for Youth, Kate Ellis, will be conducting consultations with universities, student societies and clubs on the best way to ensure vital services like child care are provided," she said. "Federal Labor will obviously allow students to voluntarily organise themselves but we think the most important thing is to ensure vital student services are restored."

Mr McFarland said the NUS would not advocate a return to compulsory membership with upfront fees, but it wanted changes to be made and was compiling a discussion paper canvassing options, which it hoped to present to the Federal Government next month. "We're looking at what's happening across the world, at how it works in the UK, Western Europe and other places," he said. "All students should be able to access quality student organisations and services."

NUS figures show huge drops in union membership since 2006. The University of Newcastle Students' Association had 15,000 members in 2006 and 800 last year. The University of Wollongong Students' Association had a drop in membership from 10,000 to 1000. At Sydney University, union membership dropped from 40,000 to 10,000.


Shape up or ship out

The cabotage racket: Another restriction of trade where the general public are the losers

GOUGH Whitlam's government came to power in 1972, at the end of a long boom. Neither an external shock, such as the threefold increase in the price of oil in 1973, nor the domestic problem of an inflationary break-out in wages were seen at the time as compelling reasons to delay the implementation of Labor's reform agenda. "Rolling out the program" was the new regime's mantra and undoubtedly sealed its fate.

Comparisons between the Australian economy then and now are of strictly limited usefulness, because of the enormous growth, investment, diversification and reforms of the intervening years and the emergence of major trading partners such as China and India. Even so, we are faced with another hike in the price of oil and the prospect of recession in the US economy. At this juncture of the political cycle, a new Labor Government is once more beginning to confront the possibility that another long boom may be coming to an end and preventing the rolling out of its program.

The next year will be a rigorous test of the claims to economic conservatism by Kevin Rudd and Treasurer Wayne Swan in recent months. What's at stake is not simply the decision-making over which they have immediate responsibility, but restraining ministers - especially those from the Left factions - who are keen to honour pre-election commitments, regardless of the cost to the national economy.

Federal Transport Minister Anthony Albanese has never pretended to be an economic conservative. His announcements on the thorny issue of cabotage last week suggest that he's far more concerned about humouring the Maritime Union of Australia than putting downward pressure on inflation. The pay and conditions of Australian crews and the protection of the domestic shipping fleet have become so sacrosanct that he's announced a new review of maritime policy and flagged vast public expenditure.

On Monday he told The Australian: "This review will be about boosting Australia's international competitiveness and finding ways to increase coastal shipping's share of the domestic freight market. The Howard government was too busy picking fights with unions to fix the major infrastructure and skill shortages on Australian ports and ships". He also said he wanted "to use incentives to increase investment in the billion-dollar domestic industry", undertaking that the inquiry would canvass the issue with unions and shipowners.

The Australian Shipowners Association's reaction was utterly predictable. They know a rent-seeking opportunity when they see one. Chief executive Lachlan Payne said "shipowners would welcome the review because many other national governments provide financial support for their shipping industries".

When organised capital speaks in this way, I suppose allowances can be made because it's the voice of self-interest from an industry with long-standing grievances. But it seems as though the old arguments about an open economy v protectionism are going to have to be endlessly refought in caucus. Where is Peter Walsh, the self-described "failed finance minister" of the Hawke years, when his party needs him most?

Australia's domestic fleet is, with some obvious exceptions, old, rundown and slow. Given its cost structure, there aren't many really profitable routes left. The historical successes of the Maritime Union of Australia in driving up the cost of employing Australian crews have discouraged most shipowners from making significant new investments. Having laid low the industry that fed it, the MUA expects federal Labor to underwrite more jobs and endless featherbedding for its members and the public purse to pay for it.

Opposition transport spokesman Warren Truss says: "Our domestic mercantile fleet is not cost-competitive, generally speaking, because the terms and conditions of seafaring awards are exceedingly generous by world standards." Foreign-flagged vessels, especially from East Asian ports, do the work far more cheaply. Lifting the domestic fleet's share of the domestic freight market above its current level of about 80 per cent would inevitably be inflationary because consumers would have to pay more in passed-on freight costs than they do now.

He's also concerned that the existing legislated preference for using domestic ships might be unreasonably extended, so that it applied to ships six days from the relevant port and result in perishable cargoes such as foodstuffs rotting on the docks.

Truss believes that coastal shipping is an important element of national transport infrastructure, providing it's competitive on price. "If you can't use ships for domestic transport, then you have to rely on other means, notably trucks. A single ship with 30,000 tonnes of carrying capacity equates to about 100 semi-trailers on roads between the capital cities that are already clogged. Rail and coastal shipping will have to bear a much larger share of the burden, because our trans-shipping freight needs will double by 2025."

Truss thinks "the worst single impact on Australian industry of extending cabotage is that it would suddenly become cheaper to import a wide range of manufactured goods than to trans-ship locally made goods from one state to another. This is already evident in primary industry, where for example it is cheaper to import grain from overseas to feed farm animals than it is to move it from Western Australia to the eastern seaboard. The upshot would be that for every job preserved or created for MUA members, it would cost up to 10 jobs lost in our factories."

Although you'd expect that arguments such as these would weigh on the minds of MPs representing highly industrialised electorates, recent history suggests it's doubtful whether anything Truss has to say would cut much ice with the MUA. As transport minister in 2000, John Anderson was embroiled in a strange dispute in the Federal Court, which was dismissed with costs against the union. Anderson noted the inflexible approach that the union had taken in the court hearing. "The union representatives even bizarrely claimed that an Australian ship which might be only two feet (61cm) long and capable of transporting only 10g of cargo should be used before another foreign flagged vessel, even if the load to be carried was 100,000 tonnes". He concluded: "Unfortunately it is clear that the maritime unions see the existence of shipping as serving only the interests of their members, rather than the broader interests of Australian industry and the community."

Whether the MUA still entertains fantasies of a Tom Thumb fleet is anyone's guess. However its national secretary, Paddy Crumlin, referred triumphantly last week to a recent meeting with Albanese, noting: "He said we'd be going back to the platform." The platform in question consists of some ambiguously worded resolutions from last year's Labor national conference.

The former Opposition spokesman on transport, Martin Ferguson, distanced himself at the time from Crumlin's gloss on the resolutions and the claim that Labor was committed to extending cabotage. Ferguson assured the media there were "no private deals" to further restrict foreign shipping on domestic coastal routes. All he said he was committed to was holding an independent review of cabotage and an increased emphasis on training Australian seafarers.

As I reported at the time, Crumlin wasn't having a bar of it. He pointed out that the ALP policy was explicitly linked to restoring higher pay and conditions for foreign crews working on coastal waters, as upheld by the High Court but overturned by the Howard government's legislation. Crumlin said: "What Martin is saying is a nonsense, because he tied the High Court to the resolution." Ferguson replied, insisting that "there is no agreement as to the outcome of the review and people need to appreciate that the environment now is very different to what it was in 1996".

Ferguson is of the Left but he's a pragmatist rather than a class warrior. It's hard to imagine him giving Crumlin much to celebrate, had he become transport minister, let alone announcing to The Daily Telegraph, as Albanese did last month, that he was Sydney Airport management's "worst nightmare". The crucial question is the extent to which the review is directed to drive up the cost of foreign crews in our coastal waters, with a view to eroding the cost-competitiveness of foreign-flagged vessels, and to contributing to the operating costs of local shipowners.

Truss says: "It would be an enormous step backwards for Australia and its open economy if we were to start subsidising one sector in that way. Every sector can mount some sort of argument for protecting its members, but it's beyond our capacity to engage in that level of subsidy and it would undermine the overall strength of the economy."


Labor ignores the Left on education

EDUCATION 2008: an education revolution or the same old story?

In his first parliamentary speech as leader of the Opposition, Kevin Rudd tagged education as a key policy issue. In the months leading to the November federal election, the ALP released a series of persuasive policy papers that presented a coherent and convincing narrative about what needed to be done to strengthen Australia's education system. Much to the chagrin of those on the cultural Left who would prefer the ALP federal Government to advocate a new-age and feel-good approach to education - illustrated by Australia's dumbed-down, outcomes-based education model of curriculum - the incoming Government's education revolution involves computers, increased testing and accountability, rigorous standards and a back-to-basics approach.

Unlike previous Labor governments, which attempted to stem the flow of students from government to independent and Catholic schools by restricting non-government school funding, the Rudd Government has also accepted parents' right to choose where their children go to school and has guaranteed the funding formula introduced by the Howard government, at least until 2012.

Looking ahead across the next 12 months, will Rudd and Education Minister Julia Gillard be able to deliver? Given that the Council of Australian Governments and the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs - both federal-state-territory organisations - are now fully ALP-controlled and given the apparent goodwill on all sides, there is every reason to feel optimistic.

This is especially so given events at the state level during the past year or two. Tasmania has modified its OBE-inspired Essential Learnings approach to curriculum, the West Australian Education Minister has done an about-face and now argues that OBE fails to deliver, and Queensland has adopted a basics approach to English as a subject. OBE has disappeared from the educational lexicon, to be replaced by concepts such as content and performance standards and personalised learning.

Late last year, state and territory governments released Federalist Paper 2, which argues for the central importance of academic subjects, that the public has every right to know about school and teacher performance, and that the success of an education system should be measured not simply by how much is spent but by how well students learn.

On the level of rhetoric and, in some instances, in practice, it appears the tide has turned and that Gillard's description of herself as an educational traditionalist is not out of place. After debates throughout 2007 about falling standards, the impact of political correctness and postmodern gobbledygook on the curriculum, especially literature and history, and the best way to attract and reward teachers, it appears that 2008 signals a period where criticisms will be addressed and the system strengthened.

Optimism about 2008 should also be tempered by the fact that an education system, especially one suffering from provider capture, is similar to an oil tanker: it takes a long time to change direction and set a new course.

Rudd, in the ALP's election policy paper Establishing a National Curriculum to Improve our Children's Educational Outcomes, stresses the importance of an academic and rigorous approach to curriculum. Parents and teachers expecting dramatic changes this year in what is taught will be disappointed. Labor's national curriculum is not set for delivery until 2010 and the party has promised to give control of the project to bodies responsible for the parlous situation that exists.

When in opposition, Rudd and education spokesman Stephen Smith argued that teachers and schools should be held accountable for performance and that increased investment in education should be linked to improved outcomes for students.

While a national approach to rewarding teacher performance has yet to be agreed on, it appears any model put forward in 2008 will be of little value. Not only is there no intention to link rewards for teacher performance to students' results, as measured by improved learning outcomes, but the model being suggested is overly bureaucratic and onerous in terms of compliance and only available to a minority of teachers, thus doing nothing to alleviate the issue of teacher shortage.

There is also the additional concern that holding schools accountable for performance, while imposing a state-mandated, often dumbed-down curriculum and denying them the right to hire and fire staff, is unfair.

Fulfilling the election promise to give all senior school students access to computers and the internet, while superficially popular and in line with the mantra of becoming the knowledge nation and competing in an information technology-rich world, does nothing to address the most important issue: how best to attract Year 12 students to teaching as a career and how best to support and reward them when in schools.

The baby boomers, who make up the majority of the teaching profession, are rapidly heading for retirement and researchers agree that about 30 per cent of beginning teachers leave the profession after four to five years. Mathematics and science teachers are especially difficult to recruit and keep in the profession, and in some areas, especially Western Australia, many classes will begin this year without qualified teachers.

While some, such as the Australian Education Union, argue that the supposed bad press about teachers is to blame for the shortage, there are other factors that must be taken into account. In Victoria, for example, the ALP Government places many teachers on short-term contracts, denying them job certainty and any guarantee of continuity in their chosen profession. The quality of the curriculum and the rate and constant nature of educational reform is also significant in terms of teacher anxiety and burnout.

WA's adoption of OBE, whereby teachers are forced to implement a decidedly cumbersome, unfriendly and burdensome curriculum, as argued on the Perth-based People Lobbying Against Teaching Outcomes website (, has led to teacher frustration and angst.

In Tasmania, the recently retired president of the teachers union, Jean Walker, argued that the state's adoption of Essential Learnings presented the greatest challenge the union had faced in protecting teachers' working conditions. In 2008, whatever curriculum initiatives are planned, care should be taken that teachers are not, once again, overwhelmed and that they are given a substantial role in what is being designed.

Generally, teachers are not well paid and it is ironic that across Australia, especially in Victoria and Western Australia, ALP-controlled governments are refusing to meet teachers' demands for better pay and conditions. Given the research suggesting that, along with the quality of the curriculum, teachers are the most important determinant in how well students learn, it stands to reason that they should be better rewarded.

Luring the right Year 12 students to teaching as a career is also vitally important. Many of the boomers now in the system are only there because of government-sponsored studentships that paid for their time at university and college. While moves to reduce the Higher Education Contribution Scheme payment by students undertaking teacher training in maths and science is a start, maybe it is time to re-introduce studentships.

A submission by the Australian Secondary Principals' Association argues that teacher training must better prepare teachers for the reality of the classroom and, based on a survey of beginning teachers, concludes that teacher training is"at best satisfactory" as a preparation for teaching and in "several areas it is clear that they (beginning teachers) felt that they were significantly under-prepared".

Much is on the agenda for 2008. The danger is that the attempted solutions are based on past practice, one where committees and bureaucracies work in isolation from schools, and governments impose initiatives based on short-term political expediency or whatever is the most recent education minister's plan.

The alternative? Give schools greater autonomy and freedom to best reflect the needs and aspirations of their local communities, as with charter schools in the US. Give more parents the ability to choose where their children go to school by introducing educational vouchers, a system in which the money follows the child to either government or non-government schools and there is a greater reliance on market forces to improve quality. Now, that would be an education revolution.


Now fruit juice is under attack

Juice makes you FAT!

THE nation's love affair with fruit juice could be making us fat, experts say. Juice junkies who quench their thirst with super-size drinks might be shocked to know their daily refreshment has more sugar and calories than a can of Coke. As post-Christmas diets and the summer heat send Australians flocking to juice bars, nutritionists have warned that their health-kick efforts could make them put on weight. "Juice is a good, nutritious way to gain weight," dietitian Melanie McGrice said. "Most of us already have a high-kilojoule diet, so for people who are weight conscious they really don't want the extra kilojoules contained in juice. A piece of fruit and water is always going to be a far better choice."

An examination of popular fruit juice brands conducted by Fairfax Media reveals some contain more sugar and kilojoules than soft drinks, and up to half the average daily energy requirement. And compared with fresh fruit and vegetables, they contain less fibre and fewer nutrients. Even red cordial has fewer kilojoules than some fruit juices.

Ms McGrice said that many consumers who believed juices were a healthy alternative to soft drinks were unaware of the number of calories they contained, particularly in large-size concoctions offered by juice bars. For example, a 650-millilitre Boost Juice Tropical Crush has 1391 kilojoules, while a Nudie blueberry and blackberry crushie has 237 kilojoules per 100 millilitres. Coles's Farmland apple juice contains 180 kilojoules per 100 millilitres - the same as Coke.

Dietitians Association of Australia spokesman Alan Barclay said that, although most juice contained nutritious vitamins and minerals, for most people the health benefits were outweighed by the kilojoule content. "Juice will only make you put on weight, so any health benefit will be counteracted by extra kilos," he said.

Catherine Saxelby, author of Nutrition For Life, said the problem with juice was that it contained all the fruit sugar, or fructose, and kilojoules of fruit without the fibre, meaning it was all too easy to overconsume. A 650-millilitre cup of apple juice, she said, contained the kilojoules of four apples but took only a fraction of the time to consume. She called on juice bars to stop offering big sizes at only slightly higher prices and to include a smaller-size alternative. "Those big size portions are a bargain people can't refuse," she said.

"Fibre is the thing that fills you up and stops you overeating, but the juicing process removes that. I would like to see drinks produced in 200-millilitre sizes, not 650 millilitres, which would fit into our diets a lot better. "The bottom line is that half a cup a day, or 125 millilitres, of juice is the maximum we should drink."

Boost Juice marketing manager Jessica Cleeve said the chain had recently sold 250-millilitre smoothies as part of a promotion and was considering making them a permanent option. "If customers haven't been active, it requires a more measured intake of all food and beverages, including juice. If they have been active, then go for it - if not, go for a smaller size. It's all about balance." Nudie marketing manager Sally Draycott said its drinks were meant to be drunk in 250-millilitre serves. "Our drinks are very filling so you can't really overindulge in them - you have to be pretty gluttonous," she said.

A Deakin University survey last year found that juice and other fruit drinks, including cordial, were a bigger problem than soft drinks in childhood obesity.


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