Some very serious changes to the Higher Education system of Australia are going to be discussed starting from October 28th – deregulating the University fee structure, which will most likely lead to increasing fees and interest rates, leading to much greater student debt. (Yes, there are some positives in there but it’s hard to get away from massive increase of student debt.) While some university representative organisations are in favour of this, with amendments and protections for some students, I am yet to be convinced that deregulating the Universities is going to do much while we labour under the idea that students will move around based on selected specialisations, the amount of “life lessons” they will accumulate or their perception of value for money. We have no idea what price sensitivity is going to do to the Australian market. We do know what happened in the UK when they deregulated fees:
‘Professor Byrne agreed, but said fee deregulation would have to be “carefully thought through so as to avoid what happened in the UK when they did it there – initially, when the fees were uncapped, all the universities just charged the maximum amount. It’s been corrected now, but that was a complete waste of time because all it did was transfer university costing from the public to the private sphere.”’
But, don’t worry, Professor Byrne doesn’t think this will lead to a two-tier system, split between wealthy universities and less-well-off regionals:
“I’d call it an appropriately differentiated system, with any number of levels within it.”
We have four classes! That must be better than have/have not. That’s… wait…
The core of this argument is that, somehow, it is not the role of Universities to provide the same thing as every other university, which is a slashing of services more usually (coyly) referred to as “playing to your strengths”. What this really is, however, is geographical and social entrapment. You weren’t born in a city, you don’t want to be saddled with huge debt or your school wasn’t great so you didn’t get the marks to go to a “full” University? Well, you can go to a regional University, which is playing to its strengths, to offer you a range of courses that have been market-determined to be suitable. But it will be price competitive! This is great, because after 2-3 generations of this, the people near the regional University will not have the degree access to make the money to work anywhere other than their region or to go to a different University. And, of course, we have never seen a monopolised, deregulated market charging excessive fees when their consumer suffers from a lack of mobility…
There are some quite valid questions as to why we need to duplicate teaching capabilities in the same state, until we look at the Australian student, who tends to go to University near where they live, rather than moving into residential accommodation on campus, and, when you live in a city that spans 70km from North to South as Adelaide does, it suddenly becomes more evident why there might be repeated schools in the Universities that span this geographical divide. When you live in Sydney, where the commute can be diabolical and the city is highly divided by socioeconomic grouping, it becomes even more important. Duplication in Australian Universities is not redundancy, it’s equality.
The other minor thing to remember is that the word University comes from the Latin word for whole. The entire thing about a University is that it is most definitely not a vocational training college, focussed on one or two things. It is defined by, and gains strength from, its diversity and the nature of study and research that comes together in a place that isn’t quite like any other. We are at a point in history when the world is changing so quickly that predicting the jobs of the next 20 years is much harder, especially if we solve some key problems in robotics. Entire jobs, and types of job, will disappear almost overnight – if we have optimised our Universities to play to their strengths rather than keeping their ability to be agile and forward-looking, we will pay for it tomorrow. And we will pay dearly for it.
Education can be a challenging thing for some people to justify funding because you measure the money going in and you can’t easily measure the money that comes back to you. But we get so much back from an educated populace. Safety on the road: education. Safety in the skies: education. Art, literature, music, film: a lot of education. The Internet, your phone, your computer: education, Universities, progressive research funding and CSIRO.
Did you like a book recently? That was edited by someone who most likely had a degree that many wouldn’t consider worth funding. Just because it’s not obvious what people do with their degrees, and just because some jobs demand degrees when they don’t need them, it doesn’t mean that we need to cut down on the number of degrees or treat people who do degrees with a less directly vocational pathway as if they are parasites (bad) or mad (worse). Do we need to change some things about our society in terms of perceptions of worth and value? Yes – absolutely, yes. But let’s not blame education for how it gets mutated and used. And, please, just because we don’t understand someone’s job, let us never fall into the trap of thinking it’s easy or trivial.
The people who developed the first plane had never flown. The people who developed WiFi had never used a laptop. The people who developed the iPhone had never used one before. But they were educated and able to solve challenges using a combination of technical and non-technical knowledge. Steve Jobs may never have finished college (although he attributed the Mac’s type handling to time he spent in courses there) but he employed thousands of people who did – as did Bill Gates. As do all of the mining companies if they actually want to find ore bodies and attack them properly.
Education will define what Australia is for the rest of this century and for every century afterwards. To argue that we have to cut funding and force more debt on to students is to deny education to more Australians and, ultimately, to very much head towards a permanently divided Australia.
You might think, well, I’m ok, why should I worry? Ignoring any altruistic issues, what do you think an undereducated, effectively underclass, labour force is going to do when all of their jobs disappear? If there are still any History departments left, then you might want to look into the Luddites and the French Revolution. You can choose to do this for higher purposes, or you can do it for yourself, because education will help us all to adjust to an uncertain future and, whether you think so or not, we probably need the Universities running at full speed as cradles of research and ideas, working with industry to be as creative as possible to solve the problems that you will only read about in tomorrow’s paper.
Funding Education: Trust me, you want to.