Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Tuition fees that failed to commodify

Dawkins reintroduced tuition fees. At the time, this was a major issue, provoking student protests and heated debates. Simon Marginson, who at that time was working for the Federation of Australian Staff Associations, describes it as a key commodifying event: it seems obvious then that it should be central to this thesis. It is not, for reasons I will explain shortly. However, discussion and debate that surrounded tuition fees had significant impact. It centred on the public benefit of knowledge and education, which participants in the debate considered to be central to the question of fees.

Simon Marginson understands the public good of knowledge in terms of public ownership – the danger of this perspective is that it makes it sound as if all knowledge needs to be owned, when perhaps it is better not owned at all. But for him, the public ownership of knowledge is congruous with the 1980s staff association position that regarded free education as a right of citizenship. If knowledge is publicly owned, it should not be privately sold. Not only is it obvious that successive governments have happily sold public assets, but Marginson’s logic would emphasise education’s exchange value, having a commodifying effect. He attempts to address this by describing knowledge as a non-market good, stressing that possessing knowledge does not prevent someone else of having it. The same applies (for example) to music download, which has a massive market: it does not prevent commodification in the way Marginson would like.

Public good understood in a different way – not as public ownership, but as public benefit – was losing its persuasive power. What Ian Clunies Ross would have called “civilisation”, economists of the 1980s started to call “positive externalities”.  For free market economists, the existence of positive externalities was insufficient to justify public funding. Many commodities produce positive externalities without requiring state interference, they claimed.   Higher education might be good for the public, but public subsidisation interfered with the value system that a market economy would supply, a system they felt would better regulate quality.  Similarly structured arguments were used in reverse. Opponents to the market system, especially the Federation of Australian Staff Associations, claimed that the values of the market disrupted the value system that promoted the intrinsic value of knowledge. 

Neither side was happy then, with Dawkins’ scheme for student tuition fees: a system designed by Bruce Chapman for the Wran committee on higher education funding.  The Higher Education Contribution Scheme, known as HECS, failed to commodify education in the sense free-market economists had wished, since the fee was still subsidised and state regulated and would only be repaid at a rate deemed reasonable to graduate’s earnings – and never at all if they did not reach the income threshold or if they moved permanently overseas.  Don Watts tried to make the best of it:
Thinking parents will surely make sacrifices now rather than allow their children to inherit a tax liability.
While for the Federation of Australian University Staff Associations the new fee violated their long-held insistence on free education, the claim of higher education as a right of citizenship had lost its traction in government. Indeed, post-Whitlam Labor had for some time been concerned that public funding of university degrees drew on the taxes of all to systematise financial and social privilege. 

Analyses of the impact of HECS have failed to show the calamities that its opponents predicted. A small reduction of participation by mature age women is a loss indeed, but does not show a widespread shift in higher education towards the privileged.  Except that HECS perhaps made it possible for the Howard government to introduce full domestic fees (a phase of university history just beyond the scope of this thesis), Dawkins’ tuition fees had little impact at all.

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