Bursting point

There’s a conversation building about whether we’re wise to look at higher education through the lens of the economy, given that nothing much looks good through the bottom of that dirty glass. Markets achieve extraordinary results using the levers and pulleys of scarcity, rivalry and desire, but this volatility doesn’t always help the big public institutions that deliver other kinds of social and cultural benefits, like education.

So we half-protect these familiar institutions of public life from the market in order to keep them in a steady state of development, managed as national resources by people who can plan responsibly for their futures with some certainty of employment and infrastructure. They’re also very expensive to dismantle and resurrect, so even if their value isn’t entirely economic, there’s an economic argument that it’s better to subsidise them through drought and flood, than to have to keep rebuilding them from scratch.

To this extent, Australian higher education is a bit like the Australian film industry. Its presence in both domestic and export markets is a marker of national independence and maturity, and taxpayers are more or less happy to fund both, even if as consumers they might not patronise either. But both are in a constant state of compromise as cultural goals and commercial means tussle for priority.

One way of looking at this is that any protection is better than none. But if we drip-feed cultural institutions in small national economies so that they can survive but not flourish, we’re both condemning them to global irrelevance, and taking big risks with the local cultural values they serve. Steven Schwartz points out that whatever the pros and cons of the economic argument for having a properly supported university system in Australia, we need to extend the conversation to include a fuller sense of the other things we gain. He puts his reasoning in this nutshell:

The case for supporting universities because of their contribution to our understanding of ourselves and our own humanity is impregnable.

I really want to stand on the desk at this point. The case for supporting the practice of learning as a means of sustaining human culture and minimising our harmful impact on more or less everything else seems impregnable to me. I’m a paid-up fan. But I’m starting to think that in Australia we need to protect the quality and integrity of higher learning from universities, at least to the extent that they develop their mission from the current government’s productivity goals.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only Australian academic diving under the covers this weekend as early morning radio passed on the latest progress report from our Minister on the official growth strategy for higher learning towards 2025. By this time, a) a third of all jobs will require undergraduate degrees and b) 40% of 25-34 year olds will be clutching the appropriate permission-to-work slips.  In other words, the news from the top is couched in exclusively economic terms: higher education is the training ground for the Australian workers who will solve the skills shortage—which increasingly seems to be some kind of mean-spirited shorthand for the threat that Australian jobs will go to clever, qualified foreigners unless we pull ourselves together.

As I have two children who will be in the charmed demographic bracket of degree qualified in 2025, and a third who might at that very moment be a university student, I consider myself a stakeholder. And the way I see it is this: if these three do decide to enrol in university, they will graduate with a level of debt that can only be managed if the second part of the promise pays off, and Australian employers treat their qualifications with respect, when nearly half the population is holding the same script.

Which degrees will be valuable under these circumstances? What if the 40% of young workers who are degree qualified haven’t specialised in the same fields as the third of jobs that require degrees? And what if the degrees that teach us most about our humanity aren’t the ones that address the skills shortage, whatever that happens to be at the time? The prospect here is a swamp of toxic loans, and it’s this that has US commentators talking about higher education as the next bubble to burst.

What makes this commitment to debt-driven expansion a gamble is the generally lukewarm attitude to university education expressed in Australian community sentiment. The Business Council of Australia, for example, takes Australian education seriously, and is strongly supportive of university teachers, but wants a curriculum directed by relevance, that’s highly responsive to business and community stakeholders. There’s a short-termish feel to this thinking that’s hard to square with some of the things that universities can do best, in building capacity for sustained, disinterested analysis of the big issues behind local fluctuations in the skills economy.

This isn’t unique to Australia. In the US and the UK, there’s an increasingly vocal protest movement that links business and activism in a sustained critique of the value system that university education represents.  When venture capitalists on the one hand are paying bright kids to drop out of college and start businesses instead, and open source advocates are pointing out how much of the world’s knowledge and know-how is already freely available on the internet, there’s a reasonable chance that the value of a university degree is about to drop like a Florida condo.

The risks are obvious, and the Australian government is obviously comfortable with them. But it looks as though the cunning plan is simply to cram more students into the system without a strategy for real staffing, staff development, research into teaching, upgrading of infrastructure or—much more importantly—the articulation of an ennobling sense of purpose to all this beyond Addressing The Skills Shortage. Flexibilisation of teaching through more and more casualisation is the obvious epic fail in prospect here.

And in the end, as staff-student ratios worsen, it won’t matter so much how the staff are contracted: if you can’t remember the name of the student sitting in front of you because your university is enrolled to bursting point and students have stopped coming to campus because they know they won’t be missed, then you’re not helping them understand themselves or humanity, you’re speed dating.

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