Politicians with an eye to the media cycle frequently tout their latest initiative as a ‘revolution’, but often the most substantive transformation is a lot less money in taxpayers’ wallets.
In 2008, Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard (then Minister for Education), having launched the $16bn (£10.5bn) Building the Education Revolution (BER) followed this with the $2.4bn (£1.6bn) Digital Education Revolution (DER).
‘Revolutionary’ sums; except that BER wasted several billion dollars and now DER is causing a revolt, not by taxpayers, but amongst teachers, parents, students and state politicians.
DER’s aim was to revolutionise Australian education by giving every Australian student in years 9-12 a computer. $1.4bn (£0.9bn) was spent on computers and $800m (£526m) on ‘implementation’. Using the unique mathematics and accounting measures used in Canberra this totalled $2.4bn. The ‘missing’ $200m is to most people a large sum but to Ms Gillard and her Treasurer this is a rounding error given it represents less than 1.2% of the $175bn (£115bn) deficit they have run up since coming to office in 2007. Prior to their election the national deficit was $0bn.
As with any revolution there are heretics and for DER these are the state governments who have the actual responsibility for delivering education. They quickly saw that Ms Gillard’s ‘gift’ was actually going to hit their education budgets hard and protested vigorously, only to be placated by the promise that ‘there would be future funding arrangements subject to negotiation of new agreements’. In revolutionary terms this is about as substantive as Marie Antoinette encouraging the starving peasants ‘to eat cake’.
From 2009, DER delivered 957,805 computers but with no new funding agreement, schools are now threatening to charge parents $400 p.a. for the laptops and software.
Why did DER cost $2.4bn or $2,506 per computer? The answer is Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) something well understood in corporate Australia and so it seems in schools. In 2008 (before DER) the NSW Department of Training and Education, Australia’s single largest organisation (public or private with a budget of $11.8bn), put out a tender for a new email system. As a result NSW DTE moved to Google apps for Education (Gmail), which in the first year alone saved them 66% on what they had been previously been paying to Microsoft.
So what will happen to the revolution?
Ms Gillard’s government has been lagging in the polls and to regain the political initiative she unexpectedly announced Australia’s longest election campaign with the poll date set for September 14. A bold, almost revolutionary move, but so far things haven’t gone quite to plan. In the first week a serving former Labour member was arrested on 149 counts of fraud followed days later by the announcement that two senior Cabinet ministers had decided to leave politics. It doesn’t take a political pundit to see Ms Gillard needs to do something substantive and fast or in October she may be looking for a new job. My guess is she will fall back to what has worked for her in the past, spending lots of money to create another ‘education revolution’.
With a softening economy and sizable deficit, Ms Gillard can’t afford another BER so my guess is we will soon hear a big media launch of DER II. When/if this happens, I can only hope she and her team grasp the TCO nettle and this time choose something more affordable like Google Chromebooks. I have just calculated the TCO for 957,805 Chrome Books (manufactured by companies like Samsung and ACER) and while this is only what Google estimate, it does give a TCO of $1.025bn (£688m) compared to their estimate of $6bn (£4bn) for PCs.
Chromebooks are only one option, and Ms Gillard may like a true revolutionary may elect to use something more sexy like Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) or the $20 Indian Aakash tablet. Either may work, but from a financial and risk management perspective Chromebooks are a better choice as a proven technology whose TCO is known and even more importantly 1.2m Australian students (in NSW) already use Google’s underlying technology.
In the gladiatorial world of Australian politics, where all that matters is the media cycle and opinion polls, if Ms Gillard remains as Prime Minister (until the election or after) she would do well to remember George Danton quote that, ‘In revolutions authority remains with the greatest scoundrels’.