Escape from market driven education?

By Associate Professor Dominic Redfern

Academics convinced of the folly of user pays systems of education have long complained about the steady decline of equity resulting from the ratchetting effect applied to the HECS scheme since its introduction. This is compounded by the attendant impact on quality as each school and program must approach revenue neutrality through a combination of fees and research income.

Putting aside the spuriousness of the idea that universities were ever supposed to be businesses, many people of the left consider the Hawke Keating era as glory days for a revitalised and ‘fiscally responsible’ ALP which tempered the excesses of the Whitlam era with a moderate version of the Reaganomic and Thatcherite principles which defined economic thinking in the 1980s. But, as we continue to see it play out today, we might consider Keating’s third way (Blair’s term but Keating’s idea) as misguided, if well-intentioned, steps along the path to hell.

To look at art schools through this lens for a moment; having attempted to amalgamate the three largest at schools of our largest city we need to ask when will they be considered to be efficient in market terms? How big is big enough for class sizes?

For it appears no moderation is possible, once the ethos of a user pays mentality takes hold there is no limit to gearing historically public assets to all knowing market forces. For where would limits be drawn without giving way to the evils of market intervention? So, we privatise all banks, public transport, power, then water, the postal service – air is next. This logic has flowed unrelentingly to all aspects of the social contract, re-shaping it until all government is bad government. Elected officials and public servants can’t be trusted to run anything, but the market is neutral.

It’s a blind mechanism if allowed to run, sure, but the market is actually interfered with constantly – what is tax payer subsidised coal mining if not that. But let’s stick with the pretence on its own terms and at least recognise that fear and greed, drive all markets, ask any economist. Why is this ‘common sense’? Why is it the only way to run public services? Since when?

For a couple of decades now neo-liberal/laissez faire /market fundamentalist economics has been the common sense of our moment. In the triumphalist post-Soviet moment, it was the only show in town, the obvious choice. This economic model is in fact a well-orchestrated attempt to dismantle the post-war welfare society, and we can now see the impact.

To take just one element of this idea, it is hooked to perpetual growth. To look at art schools through this lens for a moment; having attempted to amalgamate the three largest at schools of our largest city we need to ask when will they be considered to be efficient in market terms? How big is big enough for class sizes? We have seen them grow and grow and grow for 20 years and not once have I heard ‘well done, that’ll do, we’re in the sweet spot now’. Quite the opposite, in fact. As to the hiring of new staff, the books are closed. The casualization of the workforce has created a generationally distorted and morally questionable status quo full of casuals who are now in their 40s, desperate for stability only afforded to the lucky few. This has been the standard whinge amongst my fellow travellers for my entire working life as an academic.

This echoed precisely something I heard earlier this year from the VC of one of Australia’s top 5 largest universities, those exact words ‘the business model is broken’. The secret is not only known but publicly admitted, even by the new breed of industrial VCs that manage today’s institutions.

But as an eternal – possibly deluded – optimist I see green shoots. Maybe it is the shock of such big regressive moves as Brexit and Trump, or maybe it is as simple as wage stagnation, but neo-liberalism is being historicised. It is being discussed in the Australian mainstream media in a way it hasn’t previously. Maybe this is that long hoped for bottom of the arc, the pendulum may have finally begun to swing back.

I recently heard, ex VC of Canberra University, Professor Stephen Parker (Parker, 2017) describe the business model of Australian universities as “broken”. This echoed precisely something I heard earlier this year from the VC of one of Australia’s top 5 largest universities, those exact words ‘the business model is broken’. The secret is not only known but publicly admitted, even by the new breed of industrial VCs that manage today’s institutions.

Looking abroad, we have Germany returning to no fee universities,  whilst in two systems that very closely resemble our own, the UK and NZ, we now we have Jeremy Corbin calling out student debt, and just over the way New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern running on a platform of reducing tuition fees. Even in the United States, student debt was for the election campaign, and remains, a very live political issue.

Even in the countries mentioned, to consider moving anywhere but further in the same user pays direction was just plain crazy until very recently – and this remains the case in Australia. But we need to ask ourselves why. Why are we wedded to a system that distorts our universities’ purpose and administration? Neo-liberalism, market fundamentalism, laissez faire economics, call it what you will, are just ideas, just the prevailing ideas of our moment and they will pass, just like the idea that smoking was good for asthma.


References

Parker, S. (2017) in interview on Radio National by Geraldine Doogue on Saturday 2 September 2017 at 8:05AM. Accessed subsequently on 3/9/17 (http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/saturdayextra/degree-apprenticeships/8864332


Dominic Redfern is an artist and academic working with video to look at the intersection of natural and social history. Dominic uses studies of plants, insects, microbes and rubbish to examine often overlooked elements of the environment that can tell us important things about how we are enmeshed within ecosystems. In 2017, he had two exhibitions in the CLIMARTE festival whilst in 2016 he gave performance lectures in Sweden and Norway. Over the last couple of years, he has exhibitions at home as well as in Tokyo, Stockholm and Shanghai and been part of the Spatial Dialogues Australian Research Council project on water in the Asia Pacific region. Dominic manages the MFA program at RMIT University’s School of Art.