Return to higher education elitism


University of Western Australia

Federal treasurer Joe Hockey has reaffirmed the Government’s intention to reintroduce into Parliament in the forthcoming February session its Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill.

This Bill was narrowly defeated in the Senate in November 2014, but the Government obviously expects that over the intervening three months it has been able to convince a couple of the cross-benchers of the acceptability and inevitability of its reforms.

There have been suggestions that the Government might have been persuaded to amend some of the more radical elements of its proposed reforms, but the responsible Minister, Christopher Pyne, has been adamant that such negotiations will not be entered into.

This is not surprising. He only needs a couple of cross-bench votes for the Bill to pass the Senate, and he has the almost unanimous support of the Vice-Chancellors of Australia’s thirty eight universities. Nonetheless, on Wednesday there were some indications that the Government might be willing to amend some of the provisions of the Bill to make doubly sure of Senate approval.

Once can sympathise with the Vice-Chancellors. Over many years Government financial support for higher education has been eroded in real terms, and uncapped student numbers (for which, let it be said, the Vice-Chancellors themselves agitated) have put further strains on already very tight operational budgets.

Faced with a cut of 20 per cent in Government funding, one can understand why the Vice-Chancellors, with one notable exception, capitulated to the Government’s demands, especially since the stick was also accompanied by the carrot of deregulation of undergraduate student fees. This also was a development for which the Vice-Chancellors had agitated, indeed even more enthusiastically and over a more prolonged period than they had for the uncapping of student numbers. 

Further, they could claim that there was a certain logic in deregulating undergraduate student fees. International student fees and most domestic graduate fees were deregulated – it was inevitable that sooner or later undergraduate fees should follow the same path. Why not sooner, especially since, with a 20 per cent cut in Government funding, they could wash their hands, Pilate fashion, of responsibility for this added financial imposition on students?

And finally, of course, access to this unregulated source of revenue would not only remedy operational budgets. It would also enable the universities – especially the G8 major universities – to maintain their quite remarkable international rankings, even though their rankings are based on research performance and only indirectly, at best, on student welfare, the constituency from whom this additional revenue is to be derived.

But accepting a 20 per cent cut in funding without a whimper, being accomplice to at least a 25 per cent increase in student fee-debt, and, in most cases embracing at least a 30 per cent increase in the cost of degrees in the various disciplines – how could the Vice-Chancellors swallow these pills? It is important to appreciate just how radical a funding cut the Government legislation proposes.

Just imagine if there was a 20 per cent cut in Government funding for primary or secondary education, for health, for welfare or tourism. What an outcry they would be! And remember, higher education is our third most significant export industry even in financial terms, let alone in cultural impact, especially in the Asian context.

The Minister, Christopher Pyne, has sought to justify the reforms by suggesting that higher education is elitist in character. Why should the rank and file taxpayer, he asks, pay for 60 per cent of the costs of students attending university? This, of course, is a highly contentious argument. It relies on four questionable presuppositions. It ignores in the first instance the whole nature of taxation where we all are taxed for benefits in which only some of us participate. Secondly, it ignores the intergenerational nature of support for education.

One generation through taxes pays for the education of the next generation, which in its turn pays for education of the following generation. Thirdly, it ignores the fact that university graduates not only subsequently extinguish their tertiary fee-debt but also, particularly if, as the Minister suggests, they become members of wealthy professions, they pay substantial taxes over their professional careers. And finally it ignores the social benefits of higher education. Where would we be without our doctors, engineers, social workers, lawyers, nurses and architects, to say nothing of our artists, poets and educators?

As I have suggested above, Australian universities perform remarkably well in the international rankings, and that even though they are competing with small elite universities like Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or Princeton, often with very substantial philanthropic endowments.

It is to maintain these rankings that the Vice-Chancellors are willing to embrace fee deregulation, the most radical change since the Dawkins reforms of the late 1980s. But, if we are performing so well, why are we embarking on such a radical reform, in effect further privatising higher education?

Why not? No Government funding cut, a modest increase in student fee-debt, and some sacrifice in the international rankings? But not fee-deregulation. Otherwise, at least for the major metropolitan universities we will be returning to the financial elitism that characterised the early history of the Australian tertiary education system which over sixty years Commonwealth scholarships and the Whitlam and Dawkins reforms endeavoured to mitigate.

Bill UrenFr Bill Uren SJ AO is Rector of Newman College at the University of Melbourne.



Topic tags: Bill Uren, universities, higher education, Christopher Pyne, Joe Hockey, elitism


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Existing comments

What seems to get left out of the arguments is the psychology of the average 18 or 20 year old. They are not good at making their choices on a whole-of-life basis, and we should not want them to be.
Jim Jones | 22 January 2015

An excellent, incisive and eminently wise article from someone well placed within the tertiary education system to know what it's like for students as well as administrators. The current "reforms" posited by the federal government will not - and I say this as a graduate of the University of Melbourne - do much for the quality or equity of tertiary education at grass roots level in this country.
Edward Fido | 23 January 2015

Higher education should be elitist. If it isn't, it isn't higher education.
Adrian | 23 January 2015

Why aren't employers paying for degrees? Banks etc make a fortune by employing highly trained graduates, but expect this "input" to their profits to be supplied absolutely free. Time for some "user pays".
James Franklin | 23 January 2015

Conservative government puts forward the Thatcher/Reagan argument that society is all about consumers and private enterprise. They promote greed and elitism largely based on wealth. What does Abbott want an Australian government to do - govern for a better society or for private enterprise masters.
Oh for another Gough Whitlam.
By the way, Hockey at university protested at some minor student fee ($200 I think) ...but he has his qualifications, bugger the rest.
Joe | 23 January 2015

Do we really want our graduates to leave Australia to work overseas to avoid the greatly increased HECS debts?
Vince | 23 January 2015

What a helpful article! Thanks Bill.
Joe | 23 January 2015

This is a fine piece.
The regrettable truths about our contemporary university include the fact that, thanks to John Dawkins, they were converted into corporations in the late 1980s and Vice-Chancellors are nowadays not only paid like CEOs, they think like them.
So it is important to realise that they and their administrative coteries are NOT the universities: these institutions of research, scholarship and higher education are composed of the staff and the students. Those people, mostly, do not support Mr Pyne's ideological changes which are presented, falsely, as "reforms" (a word, surely, which connotes "improvement").
Furthermore if the universities are to operate as places of "higher learning", they must be "elite" which is, I think, quite different from "elitist". The failure to make that distinction has led to another serious problem: there are too many Australian institutions which are called universities and too many students in them. Partly through government policies and partly for financial reasons, the student intake is now approaching 50% of the age cohort -- that is, people of average intelligence are being enrolled.
It is asking too much to expect people to believe, simultaneously, those utterly incompatible aspirations: that our universities can be world leaders and centres of true excellence, yet also accept students of just average intelligence. That is another seriously distorting legacy of the zealotry of John Dawkins..
John CARMODY | 23 January 2015

Like everyone else, students shouldn't be treated by the "one-size-fits-all" principal. Those who can afford to pay something should contribute. Those who display talent but can't afford to pay yet should be helped. Also, University education can be over-esteemed. There have been many drop-outs who have gone on to establish highly successful enterprises that benefit the whole world.
Robert Liddy | 23 January 2015

The one mistake Whitlam made was to make ALL university education free. He freed the electricity commissions, the PMG, the education departments, the road authorities, the councils and other bodies (the list goes on). That should have been kept in some form, so that these bodies retained the responsibility for attracting and bringing talent to their ranks. The consequence has been that these groups no longer believed in the need to educate the young. Instead, they went to the post-university market of graduates available. Had they been obliged to attract people INTO university courses by supporting them, perhaps the history of tertiary education would have been different. I know many more have benefited from free tertiary education than from "studentships", but the free education has not lasted. I think the current debate is unimaginative as it only considers one alternative for funding tertiary education, and that for the purpose of saving Federal money, not maintaining quality.
Peter Horan | 23 January 2015

I'm not at all sure of what Mr Liddy's argument is, Of course we can nominate (mainly commercial) "successes" who failed at university or did not attend at all, but their numbers are small in comparison with the number of able engineers, dentists, doctors, veterinarians whom our best universities have produced, at a fine international standard, over many decades. We don't really want those professions self-educated, so -- unless he's making a broad-sweeping argument that universities are irrelevant -- I'm not sure what his argument really is. The matter of payment is, ultimately, a philosophical one. The society -- no less than the individuals -- benefits from education. For a long time we've supported free public primary and secondary education; is he arguing that tertiary education is -- or ought to be -- different, such that there's a public good in school education (meaning that its cost should be borne by the whole community) but not in university education? Furthermore, since most of the so-called "rankings" are based on research activity and aspects of universities' wealth (and age 0 -- libraries, endowments and so forth -- it seems iniquitous to ask the current generation of students to make a disproportionate contribution to those "rakings", making a contribiuion, perhaps, to future community benefit which the contemporary Australian government isn't prepared to make.
John CARMODY | 23 January 2015

I still dont understand why the ALP inytoduced HECS and related costs for undergraduates For me one of the great reforms in my lifetime was the virtual elimination of uni fees Its time to turn the clock back to pre Dawkins/Hawke
Peter Hoban | 23 January 2015

An informed analysis at last of the real issues behind the Pyne proposals, including rejection of the naive notion that all taxation is bad. Tax is simply part of the democratic process whereby governments. on behalf of us all, pay for certain goods to ensure their availability to all. Democracies happily fund expenditures that produce a better society. Accessibility to education is critical to a good society and should not be limited to those who have the funds to pay. Even the Dawkins notion of HECS loans prejudices many who would struggle to service the loans at the time of life that a good society wants them to meet the costs of housing, feeding and educating their own families. Tax reforms that don't target the vulnerable should be pursued rather than increasing charges that do target the vulnerable.
Peter Johnstone | 23 January 2015

Though the myth of conservative governments being the "real managers" endures there is little attention paid to their neglect of human, social and intellectual capital, the capital which drives the material capital. If these societal underpinnings are not resourced there is wastage, a severe opportunity cost. That said the CEO status of VCs and the rankings are a bit of a joke. Funny that a university is often the one place where those providing the service-teaching- are not trained to do what they are selling. Or are things changing?
Michael D. Breen | 23 January 2015

University education is like Tradition. Both are fine when conditions are stable, but in rapidly changing times, as at present, the value of 'thinking outside the box' is often ignored, undervalued and even hindered. Universities are certainly not irrelevant, but the esteem they enjoy needs to be spread more widely so adaptions to new situations are equally promoted. All 'Traditions' are two edged swords- preserving old established insights, but unless we are careful, at the expense of new and more relevant ones.
Robert Liddy | 24 January 2015

Follow the money. Note how much of a pay increase Vice-Chancellors have enjoyed in recent years and you will see why they like the way this is headed.
Felsy | 24 January 2015