It’s time for another RiotACT Face Off. This week, we asked Kate Carnell and Steven Bailey to share their thoughts on government funding of tertiary education. Both were given the following question and their responses are below.
Should tertiary education directly align with the business needs of the nation in order to qualify for Government subsidy or loan?
Generally speaking, the short answer is yes, not just because it would meet the needs of business and the economy (although these are good outcomes) but just as importantly it would better meet the needs of students as it would lead them to enrol in a qualification that was more likely to secure a job and stronger financial future. Meeting labour market needs is not about re-imposing caps on places at university or removing choice from students. Instead, it is about empowering students to make better choices through good information about job prospects and likely salary outcomes, and allowing the market to respond.
In Australia, university education, and increasingly vocational study, is funded by a combination of government subsidy and student fees which are usually paid through a purpose-built loan scheme enabling students to borrow money and pay it back when their income is sufficient to comfortably pay down debt. This contribution from taxpayer funds recognises the “public benefit” in students undertaking tertiary studies. The private benefit to the student comes in putting those skills to good use in a chosen occupation, usually with an above average salary attached. Without these skills, not only would business and the economy suffer, but taxpayers (including those who never attended higher education) would have limited choices for doctors, pharmacists, dentists, vets and lawyers to name but a few occupations that provide service to individuals and families. On the other hand, if a student chooses a course for personal interest and with no likelihood of using the education for employment, then it is harder to justify taxpayer subsidy.
If the student lacks information about the labour market, or does not have sufficient incentive to go looking, such as when things are free, students end up doing courses that don’t lead to good job outcomes. We saw this happen in Victoria a few years ago in the vocational training system where training providers encouraged students to undertake fully funded courses, but where an unacceptable number of the courses were of poor quality and did not lead to jobs.
One of the important elements of the current higher education reforms that has been given less attention than it deserves is the new Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching or QILT. This programme will make data available via the web to students in an easy to digest format on student satisfaction with university courses, together with salary and job outcomes. The website when launched will enable students to compare courses and universities.
With debate running hot on deregulation of university fees and concerns that this would lead to significant fee hikes, I would argue that it is the QILT website, alongside good careers advice, employment forecasting and industry information on where the jobs are likely to be, that will enable the market to operate effectively so that students have a wide range of course and fee options. Evidence is strong that it is not where you study, but what you study that will lead to higher salaries and better jobs. How do you know what to study? It is all about an informed market.
Before I begin, I’d just like to take the opportunity to say it is an honour to debate someone for whom I have considerable respect.
Golly gosh! Has it really come to this? The premise of this question is indicative of the cold heart that continues to creep to the centre of Australia’s current political direction.
That a country as successful as ours would entertain the proposition that the full breadth of tertiary education should be limited to the wealth of one’s parents, or to the demands of Industry, should be seen as nothing less than an attack on the self-determination of its citizens.
Who would decide which degrees ‘directly align’ with the needs of business, and how would those needs be quantified?
Since the global financial crisis youth unemployment has emerged as an ever-increasing dilemma for Australia. According to the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, close to 200,000 people aged from 15 to 24 have completely disengaged from the workforce. The disengaged and disaffected are three times more likely to suffer from poor mental health and pose a myriad of economic and social challenges which, when we consider our aging population, endanger our standard of living.
As Australians, instead of blaming one another, we should help one another. Instead of locking young people out of certain streams of academic pursuit, we should incentivise and inspire our young citizenry to engage in whatever form of education they so choose.
To prescribe education that directly aligns with the needs of business is to misunderstand the very purpose of education, which is to nourish its citizenry.
Statistics recently published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development demonstrate that university graduates offer twice the rate of return to the Australian public than the rate of return to themselves. Australia is not wasting money by supporting university students; it is wasting money by not supporting university students.
There is an ethical side to this argument as well. Education should be considered a human right, not a prescription for business nor a privilege for the rich. Affording our young citizenry support in a university course of their choosing is a matter of justice; it costs us nothing to be just, but the cost of injustice is great and generational. Only lazy entities consumed with self-interest or the illiberal Liberal Party, in its current form, who are little more than a barmy army for the coal industry, would support such a retrograde and draconian disincentive as the one proposed by the question.
Instead of advocating a restriction on what people may study, Business and Industry can fund universities to facilitate new degrees and research, but substituting public research funding with private funding would stifle innovation and be a disaster for the productivity of the nation. Great publically funded research, such as Wi-Fi, creates the industries of the future.
Secondly, there is a demand for academic pursuit which does not directly ‘align’ with the needs of the business community. To refuse to offer these subjects, or offer them exclusively to people who can afford to pay for them upfront, is to refuse to supply what is clearly in demand.
Can one say that the desire NOT to offer these courses is plainly motivated by the principles of business? Clearly not. There is an ideology, or a system of values motivating these perspectives. Conservative ideologues tend to obfuscate and obscure these values. Humanities subjects, such as philosophy, English and history, seek to expose these values and analyse them, and in doing so nourish our nation.
In John Dewey’s book Democracy and Education he writes, ‘it is illiberal and immoral to train children to work not freely and intelligently but for the sake of the work earned’.
The needs of business belong to humanity; humanity does not belong to the needs of business, and knowledge is a right before it is a commodity.