A Road to Nowhere Part II

Art by Xuming Du

What is it about the current tertiary education system that makes it so unfit for purpose? Maybe I just picked the wrong degree, but if what I’ve described is the recipe for success, our definition of success is surely very, very wrong. 


The Australian writer Judith Brett considers this very question in her book Doing Politics: Writing in Public Life. She writes that over the past few decades, during her time as both a student and a professor, she has watched the tertiary education system change for the worse. She writes that what was once a temple of imagination, creativity and ideas has become nothing more than a hollowed-out shopping mall, littered with bad cafés, flashy signs and price-gouging bookshops.


Reflecting on her own time as an undergraduate, she writes that today, “students are offered far less than we were, and they have to pay much more for it.” She laments a system which used to encourage the creation of ideas, rather than their codification into checklists and commercialisation into products. She summarises that today’s universities reward work that is “cautious and uninteresting, producing no new ideas.” She writes that students and academics alike are made to focus on what their superiors want and will be likely to reward rather than what is actually valuable


The regrettable truth of tertiary education in Australia is that it is just another public good that  has been corporatised by neoliberalism, an ideology that  measures success according to concepts that  have no meaning in a university setting. Words like ‘productivity’ and ‘efficiency’ and that old dreadful poisonous phrase ‘economic rationalism’ have corrupted how we value thought and have reduced our universities to nothing more than another JB HiFi, Target or Big W. The success and standing of a university are  no longer measured by the value of the education it provides or the ideas it creates but by the money it makes, the useless theories it sells and how many students trade their souls for clerkships in a race to the bottom. No matter how useless the course, how great the disillusionment or how hopeless the search for employment becomes, the university will get its due. The debt many of us carry around our necks for decades will see to that. It is our souvenir of a road to nowhere.


So the question has to be asked, how do we change this? The answer must be to remove money from the question of tertiary education in its entirety. Only the creation of a universal and costless tertiary education system where money is not the primary motivator can foster the imaginative, creative and original thinking which the world requires. One of the many mistakes of neoliberalism is its defining assumption that everything can be monetised. By its very nature, thought is incapable of being accorded a monetary value. How can you measure essays in dollars? How can you rank ideas according to their financial value? It is simply ridiculous. Yet this is exactly what modern tertiary education does. The fees you pay represent your financial value to the university. Not the value of your ideas, your imagination or your intelligence, but the value of your simple attendance. There is no longer any incentive to engage or even to educate students, just a base motivation to attract them with flashy marketing and then keep them in the store for as long as possible as the fees roll on and on and on.  


If cost-cutting, profit-making and corporatisation were no longer the foundations of tertiary education, checklists would be abandoned and soulless courses would be dropped. Universities would be free to reward careful, considerate and quality research which actually added something to the public debate. This would not only enrich the quality of tertiary education but also broaden its base, reducing the gap between rich and poor, young and old by offering students a more equal access to quality education. When universities become something more than callous superstores, they will no longer sell a simple product, but will be free to engage, to inspire and to truly educate.  


Surely I can’t be the only one who feels like this. I can’t be the only one who has found tertiary education nothing more than the brutal education of an idealist. I can’t be the only one who feels like it’s all one giant waste of time and money. I know a return to free tertiary education is ambitious. I know it sounds impossible. I know that creative solutions are not easy. But we live in times that  demand creativity. The day will come when our generation is called alone to solve the seemingly unsolvable problems of our time, passed down by mediocre and gutless politicians for decades. We will overcome the climate crisis. We will create a society free of crippling socio-economic inequality. We will arrest the slide into populism, oligarchy and autocracy. When that time comes, the world will need imagination more than ever. It will need leaders who are unafraid of the bold, the original and the unthinkable. It will be us who turn the impossible into the possible and broaden the horizons of humanity once more. 


But we will not get there with a tertiary education system which rewards unearned characteristics, punishes creativity and turns the possible into the impossible. We will not one day be fit to lead if we allow our imaginations to be limited by a grading system which resembles nothing more than a glorified checklist. The only way to prepare our generation and future generations for the world to come is to create a system which inspires, which fosters imagination and most importantly, looks like the world which we want to build. 

With Disraeli’s quote in mind I ask you all, students of ANU, do you feel full of light? Do you feel free? Are you really learning? Does your university look like the world you want to build?


Originally published in Woroni Vol. 72 Issue 2 ‘To Be Confirmed’

Read Part I here.

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