Competing views of the benefits of higher education: who gains the most?

ON LINE opinion – Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate

Posted Tuesday, 20 April 2004

The student sit-in at the Queensland University of Technology and student protests at Griffith University did not deter the councils of those institutions raising the level of Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) by up to 25 per cent. The Howard government’s education legislation, which came into effect in December 2003, allows universities to determine the level of HECS payable for each of their courses.

The Government and Opposition have opposing conceptions of the best way to expand university education. Education Minister Brendan Nelson proposes an extension of the user-pays system for students coupled with further deregulation of university management, whereas the Opposition has argued for increased government spending and increased access to university education for students on the basis of “merit”. The Government intends allowing an expansion of full-fee paying places up to 50 per cent of approved student places.

Nelson’s vision for the future is far more compatible with the general direction of economic fundamental managerialism that has been the prevailing ideological force in Australian politics since the early 1980s. Labor’s prescription for fixing the economic woes in the tertiary-education sector is compatible with social democratic thought. In Simon Crean’s 2003 Budget reply speech there were also lingering reminders of the Whitlam government’s desire to provide free universal education for all who would benefit from it. Mark Latham claims to share similar educational aims. The Labor/Liberal divide on education derives out of differing conceptions as to who benefits from receiving an education.

Minister Nelson’s “user pays” plan for tertiary education is founded firmly on the belief that the individual student who succeeds in gaining a university degree is the prime beneficiary of the education. This is because university graduates on average are more highly paid than those who don’t get to wander the hallowed halls of academe. Coupled with this conception of who benefits from gaining a university education is the typical utilitarian liberal view about obligations that flow from the receipt of such “benefits”. Such views derive out of the liberal understanding of implied “contract”. That is, liberals believe that those who receive the benefit have a duty to meet the associated obligation.

Minister Nelson has further argued, in relation to the obligation of graduates to repay the government for the education they received, that those who have never been to university should not have to foot the educational bill for those who do. This suggestion is popular with many struggling to meet the living costs of suburbia. The other two prongs of Nelson’s approach to education also are compatible with the economic fundamentalist mindset and they are that individuals should help themselves and should self-insure against risk.

Labor’s vision of who should pay and who gains from university is grounded in a very different understanding of the benefits that flow from education. It is most crassly put in the statement that “education should been seen as an investment not a cost”. Clearly there are benefits that can flow from education but education is also very expensive – though, as the commonly repeated remark reminds us, “education is not nearly as expensive as ignorance”.

Jenny Macklin, Labor’s Shadow Minister for Education, is aware that the person who gains a university degree is a direct beneficiary of that education and may well receive a higher income than a non-university trained citizen. Social democrats generally believe that those who directly benefit from a societal contribution have an obligation to return something to the society. Labor introduced the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) scheme during 1988 in an attempt to recoup part of the cost of university education from the student who received the education and Labor has no intention of abolishing that scheme now.

While acknowledging the advantages that generally accrue to the individual graduate, social democrats believe that other benefits flow from both technical and university-level education to the employers of graduates, citizens who gain from access to improved products and services and to the society more generally. They are committed to increasing the level of education in society because they believe that an informed society is better equipped to make decisions about the future directions for a country than one that is largely uneducated. It was this belief that inspired the expansion of the Schools of Arts, Mechanics Institutes and Worker Education Associations throughout much of Australia during the 20th Century and which in turn led to the expanded TAFE, community college and university systems.

Acknowledging that the society generally benefits from having an educated workforce provides social democrats with the basis on which to justify the government’s contribution towards educational costs. What was widely acknowledged during the Whitlam period but has more recently receded from the public consciousness is the fact that, even if tuition costs are met entirely by the government, students and their families make a significant contribution to their own education. First, they forgo the income they might have earned while they are gaining an education. Second, they buy books and other equipment required for their study. Finally and most importantly, they contribute their time and mental labour to gaining and analysing knowledge. Many students also assist, without payment, fellow students who are struggling with academic pressures. In short, even in what is commonly referred to as a “free education” students and their families make a huge contribution in terms of time, effort and money to their society.

Upon graduation some of them will contribute to finding a cure for cancer, heart disease, AIDS, SARS and hopefully Malaria, Ebola and other diseases reeking havoc in the third world. Some might work to save this country from environmental degradation. Others might help governments move towards introducing more humane social services systems. Still others might write the great Australian novel, play or opera. There will be many journeymen who keep the engineering firm going, maintain accurate accounts, nurse in hospitals, teach in schools, or who find other ways to make a contribution to Australia’s development.

If the Australian community had a better appreciation of the benefits that derive from education, then taxpayers might be more prepared to educate every Australian who would benefit from further educational opportunities and to search for an equitable method of paying for it.