Access to Education Considered Against Depth of Wallet.

I’ve posted a bit recently about proposals to increase the cost of education in Australia and, coincidentally, I have to deal with the loss of some students for what amount to purely financial reasons. To maintain student privacy, I won’t go into any detail but the bottom line is… well, the bottom line. Over the years I’ve lost students because they had to take up full-time work to cover sick family members, to pay bills that were running out of control and to pay for the many costs of a delayed-cost education that is never actually free.

Today, I lost another student because they could no longer afford to stay at Uni – that’s disheartening and irritating (for me, that is, I can only imagine that it is devastating to the student).

However, this pales in comparison with recent changes to the American college system in states such as California, where slashed state budgets are causing an economically based decision to recruit international and out-of-state applicants, as the fees paid are at least triple that of in-state students. The in-state students used to receive a state subsidy, but this is now disappearing or is no longer actually being paid. What has, of course, happened, is that now in-state students are becoming the out-of-state students of other states – if they can afford it – as places are given to more financially rewarding students locally.

But what happens to California’s local production of students who will actually stay in the state after graduation and contribute to the local economy? Of course, this is a problem that will start to get worse over time, not better, if the graduates that would retire the economy take their expertise back to their home state or country.

One of my major arguments with the recent report that suggested increasing fees in Australia was that it failed to recognise the public and ongoing benefit of a more educated population. Education changes lives, lifts us higher, allows us to see to the horizon and then over it. Vast quantities of educated people improve the areas in which they work. Yes, we make more money on average. But we also contribute in many and varied ways. Education transforms and provides opportunity – to everybody involved, not just those who are directly educated.

One of the things I welcome in the new discussions on distance and discontinuous education is that we can bring education to people who are outside of our bricks and mortar. We can accommodate and keep connected to the people who are having to study at the rate of 1 course/year because they can’t afford any more. But this requires us to think about what it really means to have to walk away from your one chance of getting  out, because you have to work to keep yourself or your family alive. Yes, people can value our degrees and education without showing up every day – maybe they have to choose between doing that and eating? I’m not saying “pass people who don’t do the work”, I’m saying “how can we make the work available for people to do?”

I think that, reflecting on this, we should be thinking about flexibility, compassion and understanding. We can’t fix everything at the Uni level, but we can make it easier for people to come back and, when they leave, let them know that we will take them back when they have the opportunity to return. It is the least that we can offer  and, at the same time, one of the best things we can do to help people who are faced with an awful choice.

However, as we have seen in California, things could be much worse – but it’s important to remember that before we make any longterm decisions that bring us closer to such a deep and potentially inescapable maelstrom.

2 Comments on “Access to Education Considered Against Depth of Wallet.”

  1. Nick, although I agree with your point about bringing education beyond the brick and mortar, I wonder if it is not more complex? What will we do to overcome the real issues of poverty and a lack of resources? Is there a risk of increasing the gap between the haves and have nots without a mindful plan moving forward?



    • nickfalkner says:


      Oh, it’s definitely more complex than my ranting about state funding! I completely agree that what is needed is a strategic focus – what are we actually trying to achieve? All too often short term decisions are made that don’t seem to consider the long term impacts.

      As I’ve often said here, a Professor is a 20 year proposition – it takes roughly that long to get someone who is really, really good. Getting rid of (expensive) Professors saves your salary budget, as long as you don’t mind that it will take somewhere between 2-20 years to replace all of them again.

      I’m always reminded of Southwest’s approach – hold it together, trim down what you can but leave your staff alone because, when things bounce back, you’ll need them, you won’t have to retrain them, you won’t have to mature them and, above all, a number of them will walk over hot coals for you because you didn’t sack them!

      Thanks for the thoughts!


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