August 8 is a national day of protest against the government’s planned changes in higher education organised around the slogan “Pay More Get Less”.
The proposed changes are linked to many of the arguments I have been making in this column over the past couple of years and it is useful at this point to review the key elements.
We know that public investment in higher education in Australia is already among the lowest of all the developed nations and our students pay more than students in most other countries. The proposed changes will increase what students pay and decrease public investment.
Why should this bother regular, ordinary Armidale residents?
Firstly, I am concerned about the assumption that the benefit of higher education accrues to the individual student therefore the student (and his/her family) should pay a substantial component of the cost. Research has consistently demonstrated that the greater gains from a more educated population are reaped by the nation – gains such as an increased tax revenue from higher employment, improved health outcomes not to mention the benefits associated with increased productivity, entrepreneurship and innovation.
...do we want to do what we can so our children have a chance of joining the “Game of Mates”, or do we strive to reclaim our rights for all to share in educational opportunities, to learn and grow to become the best people we can be?
At a time when our politicians are attempting to sell Australia as a home of innovation, it seems somewhat counter-productive to place barriers in the way of students gaining the knowledge and experience needed to meet this challenge.
In Armidale, we seek to grow our town and demonstrate how different forms of employment can be developed in the regions and away from the main cities. We need creative and innovative thinking to help us fulfill this vision for our town. What a pity we cannot prepare our graduates as well as we could for this role.
Along with this is my concern that education is becoming increasingly only within the reach of those who are privileged; usually privileged in terms of wealth, but also (as identified in Murray and Frijters’ recent book Game of Mates) privileged in terms of networks and “belonging”.
Murray and Frijters argue that within one generation, Australia has changed from being one of the most equal societies in the world to one of the most unequal. Much of this is associated with the way in which those who are privileged protect that privilege through making sure that their children access a segregated education that provides a “head-start in the networking game” (p144), followed by access to a higher education that can increasingly only be afforded by those with wealth.
The proposed budget changes (lowering the threshold for study loan repayments, decreasing funding to universities by up to 10 per cent leading to increases in student fees by up to 7.5 per cent) only emphasises the current lack of concern for equity and the alternative focus on protecting access to paths to privilege so they can only be walked by those who belong to the group of “mates”.
How many of our Armidale families meet this criteria? What about the rest of us? And now the really difficult question: do we want to do what we can so our children have a chance of joining the “Game of Mates”, or do we strive to reclaim our rights for all to share in educational opportunities, to learn and grow to become the best people we can be?