Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Dear vice-chancellors. This was your moment. And you missed it.

Andrew Norton’s support of Christopher Pyne’s anticipated higher education reforms in The Age, even before the budget was announced is no real surprise, since (with David Kemp) he suggested many of them. 

More surprising is the way the vice-chancellors - especially the Group of Eight - fed Pyne the lines with which to screw everything up.

So we've all got the gist of the plans, right? It seems that Pyne plans to overhaul the type and manner of students’ financial contribution to higher education. Adjustments to the proportion of students’ contribution have been under discussion for a long time. There are some good arguments for reconsidering this share, certainly in some areas of study, but for Pyne, it seems that such a change to fee structures should also come with a broader deregulation of the system. This would see private colleges ‘competing’ with universities for students.

This policy seems to have the support of the Group of Eight universities and several of their vice-chancellors. In his London speech, Minister Pyne used University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis’ line ‘Competition between universities is good. It keeps you focused on your students’. It was thoughtful of Professor Davis* to give Pyne such a quote, for it aligns perfectly with what both Pyne and Norton believe about higher education: that increased competition is the best way to make universities better.

More money would help too, acknowledges Norton; so why not combine the two ideals? If universities need to compete harder to get additional money, they need to offer real quality education. Then they will be able to compete with those pesky overseas institutions that keep encroaching on our international student market.

There have been disturbing hints that Pyne holds the United States’ higher education sector as an ideal to which Australian universities should aspire. Sometimes in the past such aspirations have really only meant Harvard. This is problematic given that Harvard is wealthier than many small countries: no Australian university will ever be able to ‘compete’ with that. It is hard to believe that Pyne means anything beyond Harvard, however, for it is widely acknowledged – even from a conservative point of view – that the rest of American higher education is in real trouble and so (as a result) is the labour market that they feed. This is because, as I hinted a few days ago, more is at stake than whether a university degree adds wealth to your life as opposed to not getting a degree. Now, entering many segments of the labour market just can't be done without a university degree anymore. Think of all the professions that you now need to go to university to enter. It started with Engineering, then included Accounting. Later Business. Then Teaching, Nursing. Journalism. Even Policing is becoming a university thing. Wine making, even. Pretty much anything that leads to money or power in Australia means sending your children through university. Universities no longer need to persuade people that what they offer is valuable: they've captured the gateway to nearly any decent job at all.

In some disciplines, the degree your receive is far, far more likely to support you to get a job if it is from an elite university. So - as in the United States - when the fee disparity between universities also reflects their elitism this holds the middle class to ransom - pay or lose socio-economic status. This has burdened the middle class with debts that they have been able to afford - until now. Fees can't increase further. For universities, their costs continually matched their rate of growth so that NOW, now that they have reached the point where the middle class can no longer bear any more fee increases and low-SES people can't afford to go at all (but also can't really afford not to), universities are in trouble. Salaries keep increasing, buildings keep needing repairs, costs keep increasing but fees can't. Big problem for universities, of course, but what about society? All those jobs need doing by people with degrees; innovation, fuelled by educated thinkers underpins national competitiveness; but higher education is decreasingly positioned to make those things happen.

Aspirational people from low-SES backgrounds have far more challenges than that and, in America, many were persuaded to invest in higher education only to find the other pressures were too high, leaving them WORSE OFF since they now have educational debt that is of no value to them since they did not finish - and which sometimes they can now not repay, leading to the downward spiral of defaulted debt and…you can see the problem. 

Australian universities have been protected from many of America's problems (both internally and in the labour market), largely by HECS – thus far, anyway. But for the Norton-Pyne-Kemp ideology of competition to work, students need to be LESS protected by HECS, otherwise the competitive process they idealise can't function. So Andrew Norton's History, which he says in this article shows that low-SES students are not put off by fees, needs some work - or at least some nuancing, for it is HECS THE WAY IT IS NOW that has protected everyone. And we can not exactly call the current system a success in socio-economic terms, for low-SES participation (particularly in rural Australia and among Aboriginal students) is abysmally low and has barely improved in twenty years…until we had some recent work on the problem, which shows some slight improvements, but still a long way to go.

Nevertheless, the desire for Australian universities to be competitive in ways that go beyond crude (and largely useless) global rankings underpins the push for deregulation. Both Pyne and Norton seem persuaded that, universally, more competition will breed quality. It sounds good. But they are overlooking a few things.

Firstly, no private college will ever compete with our big, old elite and public universities. Of course the Group of Eight can support increased competition because they will not actually have any. Australia's public university system is unlike the USA's or even Britain's in this respect. The Universities of Melbourne and Sydney especially, but also Adelaide, Queensland, UWA, ANU, Monash and UNSW, can happily sit atop the competitive pile and, in a deregulated system, charge the highest fees. [This is not an excuse, dear Go8 vice-chancellors, for your job should have gone beyond the level of self-interest you're showing here to a type of leadership that cared not only for your own institutions and not even just for the sector but also for society and Australia's labour market]. 

Higher education in Australia is not the same market as private schooling. Wealthy, elite parents expect their children to get into (say) Sydney or Melbourne on government-supported places. In fact, for some, this is the purpose of paying all those private school fees. No fee-paying college or university has a chance of competing for the elitism of these old bastions of socio-economic advantage. And Andrew Norton’s article shows that that is not the purpose of private colleges anyway.

Private sector colleges are not proposed in order to make the elite universities work harder to get the best students and teach them in a manner that keeps the flow of good students flowing; they are there to sequester low-SES students who have a lower ATAR away from the elite. These impoverished students will pay fees – lower fees than at university to be sure – in pathway programs that may or may not make up for the reality that the education system was designed to ensure a vast majority of their more privileged peers get into commonwealth supported places at the top universities while their own chances are far smaller. There is, embedded in this role, no prospect of competition between the private sector and the elite universities. They will clearly not be comparable institutions.

Even if there were actual competition at stake, the argument that competition stimulates quality still does not work. It is true that in many areas of economic life competition and quality go hand in hand. But in universities, Norton’s approach to ‘demand’ ignores the reality that there is no structural connection between the sources of quality and the sources of competition. Not one academic teacher has ever sat in a classroom determined to do a good job because they want to ensure the university’s marketing team meets their targets. What is frustrating about this is that many academics, myself included, agree that quality in Australian universities needs some real attention. Blindly believing that competition will breed quality without examining how quality is actually made is ideology, not policy.

It is certainly time, too, that the nation’s least advantaged students stop getting the blame for quality failures in the system. The correlation of low-SES and low ATAR that Andrew Norton noted should constitute a national emergency, for it is statistically unlikely that poorer people are in fact any less intelligent. We do the nation and our education systems a disservice by giving up on them as we often have. It is the same as sport. If the only people who make the national sporting teams were those able to pay for elite coaching we KNOW we are missing out on the nation's best talent. When the elite universities mainly attract students from certain SES backgrounds, we also miss out on the best, regardless of ATAR. We have evidence, even. Once low-SES students make it past their first year, they do as well and often better than their more privileged peers. The last thing any educational reform should do is add barriers and costs to their pathway to success. Indeed everyone loses if we do. No one actually benefits from impoverished under-educated communities, not even wealthy conservatives.

What has me confused is why university leaders are not making this case. For while we might well expect this ideology-based policy from politicians and the report-writers that they commission, there is no excuse for the fact that it has been the vice-chancellors feeding Pyne the lines he has needed to potentially sabotage a higher education system that needs work of a far different kind.

* Disclosure. I participate in a research project on the history of universities that includes Melbourne VC Glyn Davis as a chief investigator. Clearly (from this post) this association does not mean I feel unable to criticise him or the role of the Go8 VCs.

1 comment:

John O'Brien said...

The words 'backbone' and 'vice chancellors' don't fit easily in the same sentence unless backbone is modified by the word 'no'!