What's Abbott's elite education worth?

Churning out more and more university graduates who can't think for themselves will do little to improve the economy. What we need is a return to the civil and critical thinking that universities used to teach.

There is a paradox at work in Australian higher education. We need both more and less of it to keep Australia on an upward trajectory. 

First the less. 

Incoming BCA president Catherine Livingstone yesterday called for urgent intervention in Australia’s education sectors, telling Fairfax papers “there are too many people going to university and not enough going through the VET system ... It does not preclude them from later entry into the university system. I just think some students would be better off with vocation and skill training and having work experience”. 

The same point was argued in Business Spectator just last week (A Napoleonic lesson in job creation, July 24) following British employment minister Esther McVey’s call for more young people to exercise their “creativity” by setting up their own businesses. 

It is a difficult topic, because equity issues loom large whenever it is suggested that fewer Australians should be in the higher education system. 

A case in point was aired as part of the ABC’s Life at 9 documentary last week. 'Michelle', mother to a large brood of children, described how in her early adulthood she was drug addicted, pregnant and homeless. 

Later, with seven children at risk of emulating her disastrous start to life, Michelle and her partner Alan decided to enrol in university. 

The result, as she describes it, was remarkable: “Since we got our education, things are so much better for us because we’ve gone from that desperate poverty, a horrible situation, to things being really, really good for us.”

Such examples are good for the nation as well -- moving from welfare dependency to being productive tax-payers, being less likely to burden a strained health system and being more likely to raise kids who are ‘lifters not leaners’, as Treasurer Hockey likes to put it. 

The point is that higher education delivers two types of benefit to couples like Michelle and Alan. Obviously there are skills and knowledge, but there is also what sociologists call ‘cultural capital’. 

The latter term, made popular by the French theorist Pierre Bourdieu, acknowledges that aside from economic stratification in any society, there is a less easily discerned cultural stratification. A post-uni version of Michelle and Alan will ‘fit in’ to places from which they’d have previously run a mile. 

So how could anyone argue that we need fewer graduates? 

There are two answers. 

Firstly, not all students who ‘buy’ cultural capital from our higher education system are lacking it in the first place. 

As Esther McVey pointed out, running a business is a damn fine life, full of its own rewards. School leavers who have good role models on this path, a bit of capital (grandma’s inheritance?) or enough secondary education to get going, should not feel they need the stamp-of-approval of a university to legitimise their choice. 

Moreover, seasoned SME owners with real-life experience make excellent university students later in life. The current trend towards ‘flexible delivery’ of education means that when the time is right, it’s easier than ever to study. 

And, as Livingstone’s comments imply, if a university graduate ends up in job that a VET course would have better prepared them for anyway, it’s clear that the individual has incurred a large debt, and drawn on a large chunk of public funding for uncertain gain. 

When Prime Minister Abbott finished his higher-ed career in 1983, graduating from Oxford with an honours degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (as his academic transcript shows), a degree was quite a different proposition for school leavers. 

ABS records show that the cohort of 15-24 year-olds in Australian higher education in that year represented 1.18 per cent of the estimated resident population. 

This year, that same cohort is 3.3 per cent of the estimated resident population. 

That is, in approximate per capita terms, three times as many school leavers pursue higher education. (In fact, given our ageing population, it would be more than three times in a like-for-like comparison).

But while far more young Australians are studying, universities have struggled to maintain academic quality. Class sizes, in particular, have grown year after year since the 1989 Dawkins reforms kicked off two decades of accelerated growth in enrolments. 

The swelling ranks of students not only received less individual attention, but many institutions saw academic standards slip as poorly pre-qualified full-fee-paying students from abroad were waved in to help balance the books. 

And, of course, the cachet of a ‘degree’ in Abbott’s day was substantially diluted. Students whose parents were sure it would come with a large chunk of cultural capital may be less sure of the final result. 

All of that backs the case for ‘less’ higher education. But what about the paradoxical need for ‘more’? 

Watching political and policy debates in the past few years, as well as the explosion of acrimonious commentary in recent days responding to the conflict between Israel and Hamas, it’s clear that Australian public discourse would benefit from more of the civil and critical thinking that universities used to teach. 

Former Howard government minister Amanda Vanstone complained yesterday that: “Those who see themselves as the cognoscenti mingle around confirming both their solidarity with each other and their righteousness. A good dose of sneering condescension for anything right of centre makes them feel a lot better about each other. It’s the same with schoolyard bullies and workplace harassers...”.

She was referring, among other things, to the Left’s failure to see that one of their heroes, Justice Michael Kirby, had been praising the Abbott government for advances in HIV/AIDs policy. 

That’s true enough. However, a much more dangerous, volatile debate is raging around Israel’s bombing of schools in Gaza, and the ill-considered cartoon Fairfax papers ran to represent this. 

Australian public discourse is begging each of us consider our politics, pick a side, and either back Israel’s right to defend itself or the Palestine’s right to launch desperate rocket attacks on Israel. 

Automatons of the Left are required to take the latter opinion; zombies of the Right, the former. 

And with a bit of luck we’ll kill sensible debate stone dead, meanwhile waving aloft university degrees that somehow failed to teach us how to think for ourselves.

Okay, that’s getting a bit hyperbolic. The point is that one of the likely outcomes of the Coalition’s education reforms is to make top universities ‘elite’ institutions again. To the extent that ‘elitism’ is based on the merit of enrolling students, all the better. To the extent that it is based on a students ability to take on debt or pay higher fees, all the worse. 

But either way, class sizes in top institutions are likely to fall. As Livingstone points out, our biggest sandstone universities enrol up to 50,000 students to make ends meet -- Stanford in the US enrols 15,000. 

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, low-quality institutions may shrivel, die or be amalgamated. In the process, many more ‘Michelle and Alans’ may be excluded.

There are huge debates to be had around equity, and the exclusion of talented youngsters from top-quality higher education. 

Nonetheless, herding vast numbers of students through higher ed is, arguably, failing to improve the economy, and failing to improve the civil and critical skills of our politicians, business leaders, media commentators and other 'thought leaders'. 

In this respect we need more, but it will most likely be achieved with less.

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