What is an education worth?

Ian Young, for the second time in three days, fielded a surprise, albeit only too brief, q&a session at the “read-in” demonstration outside ANU Chancellry Wednesday afternoon – dutifully accompanied by a woman, previously self-identified as his head of P.R., who took photos with an iPhone.

 

During the impromptu 25-minute forum, some interesting debates could unfortunately be only very briefly touched upon (in what some cynical students thought seemed more like a P.R. event for the VC, who even bought his own milk crate to sit on (although, in fairness, i don’t know what else he could’ve brought)).

 

…this government package i don’t agree with all elements, but there are other elements which do make sense.”

 

While voicing his opposition to the proposed HECS model (stating that after punching some numbers, he actually didn’t think it would work), Ian Young took the opportunity to once again voice the rationale behind his recent campaigning efforts in favour of fee deregulation; primarily that for 20 years he has been campaigning for better funding, while for 20 years subsequent governments, including the last Labour government and now the current Liberal government, have done nothing but cut funding for higher education – leaving him and some other vice-chancellors with no alternative BUT to campaign for fee deregulation, to secure greater funds.

 

Young emphasised the need for higher-education funding to become a more pertinent issue amongst the public, and downplayed his influence on the current government’s education policy, stating that he does not have a “direct line” to the education minister.  Students, however, protested that this was disingenuous, given his considerable sway as current chairman of the group of 8, and characterised the approach as a cop-out – largely complicit with a narrow-minded government’s inequitable policy approach particularly to education.

 

Young also said that, were higher-education to become a bigger electoral issue and receive greater funding, he wouldn’t be opposed to a reversion back to the current model from a hypothetical deregulated model in future. Although a similar reversion happened recently in Germany (where university education is once again free in almost all regions), it was not discussed the extent to which such a reversion would be feasible under any proposed deregulated model in Australia.

 

When asked, however, about the potential negative effects of the deregulated commodification on education in Australia and particularly its expected detriments to other (especially rural) universities, Young, rather than “lie to (the protesters), highlighted the pragmatic approach adopted in his capacity as ANU VC; his chief interest being that fee deregulation would simply be profitable for ANU in its capacity as a research university; and again stated that he was in strong support of a university model in Australia whereby research be specifically centred amongst the ‘group of 8’ universities.

 

Stating that “what we have at the moment is a relatively expensive way to do mass education,” Young, furthermore, appealed to one aspect of the U.S.. university system – that the existence of non-research universities working alongside research universities to provide degrees for students constitutes a cheaper way to “do mass education” that makes degrees more affordable. He added that he hopes to see more differentiation and specialisation by specific universities within Australia due to a deregulation of fees.

 

Although ambiguously hinting at concerns about imbalances in HECS rates between different degree programs under the currently better-subsidised, regulated model, as well as about funding shortage for less popular degrees – Young also continued to adopt the idea that he believes markets should set the price of a university education, further emphasising his beliefs that research-based education is the best type of higher-education, and that an increase in research funds for the ANU will correlate with an increase in the quality of education provided by the ANU to its undergraduates.

 

Unfortunately, in 25min, there was not time for follow-up questions about the relative costs, externalities, or assumptions of his particular model of commodification of education broadly-speaking, or on whether increased costs really would correlate with a better quality of education.

 

Pertinently on the topic of costs, the potential entrenchment of inequity stemming directly from the deregulation of fees (particularly with reference to an LSE study that higher education costs deter students from lower socio-economic backgrounds more than others, although also in the light of other aspects of the current proposed budget) was just beginning to be touched upon by the protestors when Young and his P.R. manager unfortunately had to flit off for again a prior engagement, amid voiced concerns about his own role, as well as that of bank representatives, on the current University Council.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is an education worth? Is it more than a degree and the means to a job? What does an education “cost” and how should its “cost” be borne? How much should undergraduate students subsidise research in Australia? Who would bear the increased costs of a deregulated model, and who would stand to lose or gain? Is or is not higher-education a ‘typically “commodifiable” market’ and how? 

 

This author hopes that some similar economic and moral debates at the heart of the proposed university deregulation model may be clarified in a more compelling, illuminating and constructive way at the Woroni forum next Monday, 6pm at University House.