An illustration of beer, a degree, books and a graduation hat by Eliza Williams

Selling Out by Degrees

Art by Eliza Williams

I’m trying to imagine my graduation. I won’t be there, but I can picture the line of unfamiliar faces, a smattering of friends and casual acquaintances. Each person is carrying their own jumbled collection of experiences in identical UNSW branded baskets. Up ahead a cashier in dignified robes checks our payment has gone through and, failing to even glance in the basket, hands over the receipt. There it goes, did you catch it? The whole point.

My purpose here, with this tortured metaphor, is to make a roundabout case that university should be free. There are many better arguments for this but having finished a bachelor’s degree at the University of New South Wales (a university which seems to be eating itself) this is the one I am well positioned to make. A degree has to be more than a product you buy. As attending university is increasingly seen through the logic of self-investment rather than education, its value is disappearing even as its price increases. 

What do I mean by a ‘logic of self-investment’? Most of us have a sense, more or less vague, of the changes to Australia’s university system since the 1980’s. Reduced public funding, increasingly casualised staff, the introduction of fees. More recently the reliance on ‘exporting’ education to international students who, in 2020 particularly, receive extremely poor treatment at the hands of both governments and universities. 

We might call these changes ‘neoliberalization’ with all its concomitant disagreement. But this change is not constrained to the structural and policy level. Increasingly, corporate management and the changing position of university education in the public psyche has transformed the ‘student’ from a participant or stakeholder to a customer. 

Neoliberalisation, the definition of which I was taught four separate times, is as much a grass roots, subjective change as a structural one. The idea that an education is an ‘investment in social capital’ is deeply ingrained in what it is to be a student. This has ramifications for both the education we receive and the social fabric of universities. I reflect often on these changes as experienced by myself and those around me. Trying to explain the distinct feeling that university never really lived up to its promise. 

If, like me, you study a vaguely ‘arts’ subject, the incessant phrase “and what are you going to do with that?” probably makes you equal parts annoyed and panicked. At one point I simply decided I was no longer going to answer. It’s not that I don’t ever want to be employed (god do I want that). Rather, it’s the way this question poses the choice of degree as the single important act, skipping three or four years of a student’s life, to connect a means to an end. This attitude is pervasive, from the adage that “Ps get degrees” to the Morrison government’s use of misleading job figures to justify hiking up the price of studying arts and humanities. 

This wasn’t always the case. Starting in the 1970’s at the peak of government support for universities, students and teachers in the University of Sydney campaigned to secure a political economy course and ultimately a separate department. Successive generations of students cared enough about the content of their studies to actively challenge the programs they had chosen. Students and teachers understood their relationship as the collaborative production, rather than simply transferral, of knowledge. I personally have a hard time imagining something like that happening today. If all we have is the freedom of choice, we have no grounds to demand better – you should have chosen better.    

We can also see in this the changed social dynamic of our Degree Mart. Despite the myriad of societies and groups, the steep campus at the University of New South Wales can be a profoundly lonely place. The social dynamic seems to have become limited to niche interest, resume building or colleges. I am sure some cohorts are closer than mine was, but equally I know many people who left university with few lasting relationships from their actual studies. I can’t help but see in this the single-minded pursuit of the end result, where classes and assessments become obstacles beyond which students’ interest rarely survives.

The other relationship stunted by this transactional mode of education is with our teachers. While lecturers speak wistfully of beers shared back in the day, the reality is that teacher-student interactions are increasingly distant and formalised. Almost every year at UNSW the procedures for attendance and special considerations become more constrained. Studying in Germany, I was shocked when lecturers asked how long we felt we needed for our essays; the one condition being that we came and talked through our ideas in person. 

At the same time as teaching staff lose their discretion, marking appears to be losing almost all meaning. This may be unique to social sciences, but the essays I and my fellow students wrote came to seem totally decoupled from the marks we received. Feedback is rare and honestly, I would not blame most of my lecturers if they actually didn’t read our submissions given how overworked they are. At the same time as we cannot be trusted to work in good faith, we don’t seem to be trusted to pass. This is a formal integrity in which learning is marginal while ‘degree progression’ is sacrosanct. 

 I don’t mean to say I regret my purchase. Four years of university have radically changed my world view and the fundamental way I think, as it has for so many others. But it’s worth being honest about our disappointments. There is a wide world of arguments out there about the accessibility, independence and social responsibility of these institutions but collectively we have to be able to say what the value of education is. If our answer is simply the market price and return on investment it will cost us dearly.




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