The solution to the higher education problem

It's unlikely to mean a revolution
Opinion

As the holder of three university degrees, I count myself fortunate, especially as my first degree was completely paid for, at the time of study, by the Commonwealth Government. My two graduate degrees were paid for by my employer.

I was a Commonwealth Scholarship beneficiary in the 1960s when the Menzies Liberal Government recognised the value of giving students from outside the usual pool the opportunity for tertiary education. I was the first in my farming family to go to University.

As a result, I have never felt that these degrees were a springboard for me to make money. I felt an obligation to my employer and to the community at large to use the knowledge, skills and perspectives I have learned in their service.

It also happened that my work-life covered a period of buoyant conditions which made many Australians wealthy, especially those who owned their home. My children will not be as comfortable as I am now at age 68.

I taught at University in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I enjoyed the contact with students greatly. I was shocked, however, at how ill-equipped many were for university study. Their literacy, numeracy, and ability to think, both in common sense ways and in the rationality required by University disciplines were much less than my contemporaries at Uni.

Yet IQs and general intellectual abilities are steadily increasing. The apparent contradiction is the result of the greater number of students, both in absolute terms and proportionately to their peers, at University.

I proffer a proposal that, at first blush, sounds radical. The Federal Government should fully fund all undergraduate degrees, on the principle that their study is an investment in our future. At the same time, the Government should greatly restrict the number of University places, thus increasing competition for entry so that only those suited for academic studies take those places.

Government should also provide a living wage for every citizen without other income. Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon took this policy to the recent Presidential elections in France. Hamon was the former Minister for Education, and for the Social Economy and Solidarity, and is unlikely to be the only putative politician making these proposals.      

Government should also be a practical leader in the work-place, recognising a greater pace of automation and encouraging real innovation in robotics and smart ways of working.

This is unlikely to mean, as it sounds, a revolution in the social background of university students. Students from the leafy suburbs, whose parents attended university, will largely continue to predominate, as their social and educational environment will amplify a slight genetic effect and enable the cycle of privilege to continue. But it will, to some extent, allow more students from outside the usual cohort gain a place at Uni.

It will also force the expansion of the TAFE sector. Here a mix of private and HECS students will work more efficiently, as many of those who qualify in trades will more quickly outpace the earning of their University peers and be able to both repay their fees and establish themselves in housing.

I accept that this proposal entails an ongoing level of unemployment, resulting in more opportunities in entertainment and the creative arts. There would be more jobs for TV writers, robotics technicians and in the service industries. Some of these jobs would go to graduates, but many would not.

Many graduates are likely to end up well-paid. If current trends continue, they will be out-paid by some tradies and real estate agents. Economists like Thomas Piketty accept that inequality will continue in Western nations because the forces behind inequality are largely beyond the control of governments.

However, if graduates are grateful for their degrees, the community would see a greater desire for service, and a more general appreciation that their education is an investment for the whole community, making for a more just society overall.

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