Hidden among the largesse for higher education in last week’s Budget was the announcement that funding to universities for accounting, administration, commerce and economics would be cut to “reflect the commercial nature of these courses”. It would be reduced to the same level as law, at present the lowest.
The government contribution for law is less than $1500 per student, which means those in government-supported places pay more than $8000 pa themselves. Universities are also free to offer courses on a full-fee basis to domestic students. They can charge whatever the market will bear, which can be as much $100,000.
This means that a Sandstone university, the status and reputation of which has been built up by public support over a century or more, can privilege ability to pay over merit. Colleagues in some institutions already mutter about teaching the “thick and rich”. Full-fee courses are supported by FEE-HELP, which allows repayment through the taxation system in the same way as FEE-HECS, but there is presently a cap of $50,000.
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The Budget also mentioned that the cap on the proportion of full-fee students is to be lifted in 2008. VCs are pleased about this because it means more money, regardless of the downsides. At the rate things are going, law will soon been totally privatised.
Access is the one issue that has managed to animate the community during two decades of transformation of the tertiary education sector, but there is also the issue of what is taught, how it is taught and the influence on graduate destinations.
Student/customers, concerned about their mounting debts are already averaging 15 hours paid work per week to live and to quick-start their careers. The curricular trend is towards applied knowledge rather than critique and questioning received knowledge.
Large lectures, in which students sit passively or online courses are not only cheap to offer, they suit the image of the compliant and docile citizenry favoured by our political masters. Similarly, rather than critical research essays, exams in which students regurgitate known knowledge are favoured.
Students are less concerned about the quality of their education than the credentialism that will secure them a well-paying job enabling them to pay off their debt quickly. For law students, this means a job in a corporate law firm, promoting the interests of the rich and powerful, rather than less well paid public interest work.
The traditional idea of professional service to the community has been subverted. Instead of promoting a healthy civil society, government higher education policy is driving a culture of greed and private good.