Tertiary education costs spiralling out of control
It’s getting more expensive by the minute but is tertiary education worth the money?
It was actually in a better state when it was free. Secondary education in Australia is not doing well either but the situation with tertiary education is even worse and threatens the future standing and prosperity of the country.
With the exception of a few high-quality Australian universities, what often amounts to the criminal irrelevance of our massively expensive tertiary sector is something that urgently needs to be brought to light and, more importantly, remedied.
The parlous state of secondary and tertiary education is intimately connected.
Our students are slogging through years of often meaningless secondary education only to go to university where they are generally achieving outcomes that are well below those of previous generations. They attain often worthless degrees, then go and work in casual jobs, in retail for example, burdened by debts of tens of thousands of dollars, angry and resentful that the prize they thought they’d been promised is not within reach.
This unfortunate process benefits only entrenched educational providers and wastes vast sums. It’s basically a big business ripping off its customers. If this situation were rectified, the fiscal outcome would be more than enough to leave budgets massively in surplus and hence solve one of our major political and economic problems.
Yet instead of being part of the solution, our current crop of educators are more often than not the equivalent to the priesthood of the Middle Ages. This usually means that the prevailing state of play is that we must not question their validity but keep providing tertiary educators with vast treasure, closing our eyes to the meaninglessness of much of what they do.
Meanwhile vice-chancellors are currently paid huge amounts to perpetuate this system and they are often completely out of touch with the reality of life lived by ordinary Australians.
Today’s tertiary education sector urgently needs to be made fit for purpose or we could start going down the gurgler, fast.
For over 90 per cent of Australian students, partners and families the aim of gaining an undergraduate degree is vocational – that is, it is about career advancement. But these days, more often than not, tertiary enrolment leads to unfulfilled dreams and bitter disappointments.
Christopher Pyne has emphasised the vocational emphasis of tertiary education when he talked about student fees as an investment. Indeed international full fee-paying students have long recognised gaining well-paid employment as their primary aim.
The fundamental economic and fiscal reality is that it is primarily the state of national labour markets that determine whether or not a degree is a passport to a good job and, sometimes, to a visa. Yet as the Indian economy, for example, has grown, many Indian students now see better prospects in returning home with their expensive degrees rather than in seeking Australian citizenship.
The remaining 10 per cent of those students enrolled in Australian universities may regard tertiary education not as a means to an end but as an end in itself. There are also some academics who still see the world in this way.
To meet the intellectual needs of such students and staff, it surely should be possible to set up a handful of low-budget, non-vocational, tertiary institutions where staff salaries are capped. Such institutions could well be a useful investment for Australia as they may well produce among their graduates a pool of thinkers who are better able to cope in times of rapid change when established educational paradigms are unable to deliver.
Innovative solutions need to be found before tertiary education costs spiral out of control and before a generation decides that university is too expensive and irrelevant.
Perhaps we should start by cutting back the tens of millions of dollars paid each year to our vice-chancellors, because the buck stops with them.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.
The Canberra Times, 16 January, 2016
Also The Sydney Morning Herald on-line.