Will the next Julia Gillard step forward, please?

Australian Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan has declared he will not join 10 of his conservative party ministerial companions in jumping ship as the government sinks lower in the polls.

Facing what seems certain to be an electoral wipe-out at the looming federal election, a succession of ministers that include five members of cabinet have announced they are quitting.

In addition to both the senior and junior defence ministers, the others jumping overboard include the foreign minister, small business minister, indigenous affairs minister and industrial affairs minister.

If the past is anything to go by, taking on the federal education portfolio in Australia is akin to picking up a sleepy crocodile: You are almost certain to be soon badly mauled.

Over the past 56 years, five women and 19 men have headed the education ministry in Canberra.

Although federal governments are elected for three-year terms, only eight of the 24 education ministers have ever held office for that long, with the shortest period lasting 14 days and the longest running for four years and 156 days.

But at that latter time, 1987-91, education was part of a giant portfolio that included employment and training, headed by John Dawkins under two prime ministers, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.

Ten of the federal education ministers have been conservative members of parliament. They include the present prime minister, Scott Morrison, who won the premiership by default following the unexpected resignation of his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, also a one-time education minister.

Despite a string of ministerial resignations, Tehan said he did not expect any more of his colleagues to hand in their notice ahead of the federal election.

Although three government ministers announced in the same week that they would step down, Tehan said such decisions were “expected after the summer break”.

"All the members of parliament have thought about what their prospects and career options will be going forward," he told reporters.

"My expectation is that everyone who hasn't announced their retirement will now be going forward to the next election."

Unusually qualified

Tehan has unusual qualifications for an education minister, having obtained an arts degree at the University of Melbourne and a master of arts in international relations and foreign affairs at the universities of Kent in England and Monash in Melbourne.

What seems certain from the polls, however, is that Tehan will join the growing list of former education ministers after the elections are held.

If an election is held next month, Tehan will have occupied the post for a mere six months – hardly enough time to have made any momentous decisions or, indeed, have had any impact at all.

And that is the reason why so few significant changes have been effected by Australia’s succession of short-term education ministers: They never stay in office long enough.

Then again, that has also been true of Australia’s prime ministers, who have mostly occupied the post for similarly short periods over the past decade or so.

If, as expected, Labor takes the reins of government, immediate changes will then occur in Australia’s most significant education department.

Greatest impact

Of all the education ministers, in fact, Julia Gillard, a Labor Party education minister (and future prime minister), has had the greatest impact in recent times.

Elected to parliament in 1998 and put in charge of the education ministry in June 2010, Gillard set out to fulfil Labor’s key promise of introducing an “education revolution”.

She was so successful as a politician and an innovative education minister that Labor later elected her as their prime minister, although that period was also one of the most tumultuous in Australian history.

Gillard’s first challenge in education was reversing many of the previous conservative government’s most contentious policies.

Among those affecting universities was her decision to scrap full-fee degrees for Australian students; creating 11,000 new government-supported student places; and doubling the number of undergraduate scholarships.

On top of this, she also doubled the number of postgraduate PhD and masters by research scholarships, and established 1,000 mid-career fellowships for Australian researchers to attract expatriate academics to return home.

Speaking at the July 2010 National Press Club, Gillard stated: "I will make education central to my economic agenda because of the role it plays in developing the skills that lead to rewarding and satisfying work – and that can build a high-productivity, high-participation economy."

Education tax refund

The following January, Gillard was elected prime minister and her government extended tax cuts to parents to help pay for stationery, textbooks or computer equipment for their children under an Education Tax Refund scheme.

But Gillard came under constant attack by conservative opponents in parliament and by the Murdoch press, and eventually lost the prime minister’s job and left politics.

Subsequent conservative governments then set about undoing much that Gillard had achieved, including imposing heavy cuts to spending on higher education.

In the 2017 Australian federal budget, the conservative government announced that spending on universities would be cut by 2.5%; university fees would be increased by AU$2,000 (US$1,400) to AU$3,600 for a four-year course (an increase of 1.8% in 2018 and 7.5% by 2022); and from 1 July 2018 the income level at which graduates would have to start repaying their federal loans underwriting their tertiary education would be reduced from AU$55,000 to AU$42,000.

The question now is: what actions will the Labor Party’s new education minister take when he or she assumes office in a month or so’s time, as must surely happen?

Then again, how long will that minister then hold office?