Life is Business: the commodification of education in Australia

Posted on January 16, 2007

This was written for the upcoming debut of Sticks and Stones magazine in Australia, I have no idea if they are going to use it or not. Apparently, I’ve still got the knack for a good whinge ;)

A topic occasionally visiting conversations in university hallways, eating spaces and lecture halls is the system of user-pays education. Students these days take it as a given and are often surprised to learn that their parents didn’t study under the same system. For those who are aware, the topic is sometimes a practical one, sometimes an ideological one and sometimes a moral one, depending on who’s doing the talking. Maybe that’s why so many of us studying today don’t have an opinion at all, beyond the idea that it would be nice not to have a debt accumulating against our name.

The first Australian university was established in Sydney in 1850, and like its followers, protected its high class would-be professional men from the masses with high up-front fees. But things were easier for the masses back then; most people walked out of secondary education into a lifetime’s employment. Soon rising populations and the advent of new technologies and competitions demanded that people got a greater edge over each other for a greater number of specialised jobs.

From ’74 to ’89 these students were supported by society to complete their education, through the tax contributions of all Australians and through their election of the Whitlam Labor government. The commitment of Labor at the time was to make access to university open to all who were qualified, revolutionising universities and technical colleges with near full funding for both the institutions and undergrads. High levels of federal government support continued until ’89 when the cost of providing for an increasing numbers of students was deemed too high – and the HECS scheme was introduced, at a much lower level of student contribution than it is now.

The initial re-instigation of fees was under Hawke, started by Dawkins and the Wran Committee. HECS, though, was merely a framework until we elected the Liberals, whose policies, true to their name as anything, have seen student contributions to the cost of their education rise from under a quarter to around three quarters today.

From the time of the introduction of HECS to ’98, funding for education was nearly halved- to just over half the cost of educating Australia. The rest is made up by state governments, students and other private sources. The effects of this cutback are increased teaching loads, fuller classrooms and the gradual demise of subjects deemed financially non-productive. Education has been managed more and more like business. In the the liberal ideal of the free marketplace permeating all corners of life, only a business like entity could possibly survive.

The business like administration of universities is a response to these pressures. Having chosen our government, we should admit our demonstrated scorn for education as any sort of social right or class equaliser. It must be a commodity because it’s bought and sold. Everything in life is becoming a utility, a means to a magical perfection of human existence, achievable only in the socially prescribed way. Greed, in this world, is good. In Australia we call the governing philosophy ‘economic rationalism’; in UK, ‘thatcherism’; and in the US, ‘reaganomics’. In most respects, this type of economically driven government means privatisation, deunionisation and the commodifcation of everything under the sun. These economic policies hit the poorest harder, due to an inherent individualist outlook on life, which deems the advantaged as worthy and the disadvantaged having proved their unworthiness.

Initially, the justification quoted by Dawkins for the user-pays system was that university attendees were the upper class of society. Government financing of higher education meant the rich taking from the poor. If this was true then, which I’m not sure of, I really doubt that it continues to be true today, when university degrees or TAFE certificates and diplomas are prerequisites for almost all jobs that can earn a living.

That anyone is still able to study, assuming they qualify, is more or less a fact. At a glance the ‘fair go’ thus seems to be in tact: HECS allows the deferment of fees until the graduates earn enough to pay. But HECS or the new fee -HELP (higher education loans program) policy is not even half the problem, considering current student allowances and welfare policy. It’s difficult for anyone to independently become qualified. For example, many under 25 and with parents earning ‘too much’ are not eligible for any type of assistance at all, while those with no familial support at all will likely need to work full time in order to be able to cut it, considering Austudy arrangements. How many people do you know studying medicine while working? They could do much better if we realised that the salary might not be their only reason for wanting to become a doctor, and helped them with a noble goal.

Regardless of our chosen professions, what we end up doing while studying is living off each other, family or anyone able to help. Even my mother was surprised when I told her Centerlink was asking about my partner’s income every time I rang up for Austudy. Perfunctorily, we are obliging and obligating each other, in obvious recognition of the selfish motivation of all students. For those who do have wider visions, this structure of society can be disheartening. I once knew a person so disillusioned. When I met him at 16 he had long since decided on his abstinence from the materialism and consumerism of society. If society, through education and welfare, had encouraged him to find an interest and become productive on his own terms, he might not have found refuge in a far more accessible drug habit.

A study was made in 2003 by Monsah University’s Bob Birrell, who noted a dramatic decrease in numbers of young students from low-income families accessing higher education. Things haven’t become easier since then, with policies being reformed that year, effectively raising the cost of higher education. About the same time, Labor accused the federal government of suppressing another report revealing the decline in disadvantaged students attending university. The promise of deferment and debt was not enough to convince many people to undertake studies, especially in expensive courses like medicine, veterinary science, law and dentistry.

We don’t need to worry about a chronic shortage of these professionals in the future, so we needn’t be alarmed for our teeth. All these professionals will continue to flourish, but coming from where? Financial barriers have again been arisen that protect the elite from the masses, just as universities functioned in the conservative ’50’s. Thus we are witnessing the re-emergence of restrictions on social mobility (the ‘fair go’), a trend that has, internationally, come to be seen as a ‘liberal’ trademark. I’m sure we’ll all be more aware of this one in the future.