Bella Peacock

Why doesn't Australia value higher education?

Australia consistently ranks within the top twenty richest countries in the world. Nonetheless, our politicians' rhetoric around tertiary education insists that we simply can't give more. Although scaled back from its 2014 proposal for full fee-deregulation, the government's continued attack on higher education funding demonstrates its clear undervaluing of education; it is reducing it simply to monetary terms. It shows a gross underappreciation of the broader outcomes of education and the role that education plays in democracies, and in helping individuals thrive. Many first-world countries have tertiary education systems that are either entirely free, or have marginal fees. Why can't we?

In Australia, our international points of comparison tend to be the US and England. Compared to these countries, our system doesn't look half bad. Unlike in the US, students in Australia are generally not required to pay fees up front, and for many prospective students bachelor's degrees still feel within reach, with fees not yet reaching the near the £9000 per year that students in England pay. However we have to seriously question whether these are the two international models we should be comparing our educational system to.

Many countries have tertiary education systems that are either entirely free, or have marginal fees. Why can't we?

In many European countries, tertiary education is completely free. This includes Slovenia, Estonia and Turkey: places with far fewer financial resources than Australia. If courses aren't entirely free, then fees for studying in countries like Spain, France, and Belgium are menial, costing locals a few hundred dollars per year. And while some subsidised education systems might be limited to citizens, Germany, Norway, and Iceland offer free tertiary education to everyone, residents and foreigners alike. Because of this many students, like myself, leave their home countries to be educated in Europe.

Wanting to pursue a postgraduate course, but reluctant to take on over $20,000 in debt, when I heard that university in Germany was free, my disbelief was quickly followed by a hasty application. To be clear, I'm not German. I don't have German family. I don't have a European passport. And I didn't speak a word of German before arriving in the country. Yet in Germany I have been able to obtain a world-class postgraduate degree free of charge while benefitting from hugely discounted public transport and health insurance. The universities here are neither overrun nor subpar. In fact, there's little difference between university here and Australian universities. And this free education is being offered in a country that, like the majority of the countries listed above, has a lower gross domestic product (GDP) per capita than Australia.

As neither politician nor economist, I won't claim to have mastered the intricacies of putting together a federal budget. What is obvious, however, is that a budget reflects our attitudes: towards business, towards education, and how we want to build our future.

To treat tertiary education only as money-making machine is to fail to recognise its most powerful potential: to create a better future for people

These European countries with free higher education are not silly. They haven't overlooked a potential cash cow; they simply value education in a way that Australia does not. Wilhelm von Humboldt, who continues to be among the most influential European thinkers on education, believed that an education should not be reduced simply to a means of getting a job, but should be promoted as a path towards general development; crucial for well-rounded and informed citizens. Education should not be a financial transaction, but a means to give citizens space to grow as individuals, to cultivate possibilities for their own improvement.

Students in Europe are assisted to pursue higher education for longer time periods than in Australia, and are encouraged to take time off their studies to do internships, the overwhelming amount of which are paid. On top of this, most European countries take part in an exchange program called ERASMUS, which offers financial support to students who take a semester to study abroad.

In English-speaking countries, students tend to graduate younger than their European counterparts. The potential reason for this is noted in a recent study of OECD countries, that points out that educational systems that encourage students to graduate sooner show a primary focus on increasing the labour force as quickly and efficiently as possible. In other words, this trend shows a tendency to treat tertiary education as a for-profit machine geared towards improving the economy, rather than students themselves. While part of the allure of going to university is definitely to enhance job prospects, it is an obvious folly to level this as the only reason to value education.

European students are also far more likely to proceed with postgraduate studies. In fact, the report Education at a Glance showed that just six per cent of adults in Australia have master's degrees. This is almost half of the OECD average of eleven per cent. This is unsurprising given the fact that, according to the same report, Australia's master's degrees are eighty-five per cent more expensive than they were a decade ago, and are second only to the US in terms of overall expense. Deemed 'nonessential' education by the government, postgraduate degrees are largely unsubsidised and, as was my case, typically cost around $20,000 for a one-year course. While postgraduate degrees may be nonessential education for finding a job, they're essential for achieving a properly developed understanding in any field. Few would argue that a three-year bachelor course is enough time for this.

It is not only postgraduate degrees that are following this trajectory, but all levels of tertiary education. The same report shows that on average, bachelor's degrees in Australia are twenty per cent more expensive than they were a decade ago, and are the fifth most expensive amongst all OECD countries. The natural result of this is that the vast majority of graduates in Australia are in significant debt. And for many who have studied in fields such as law or arts, this burden can be serious and overwhelming.

TAFEs, another essential component of higher education, have been following an even more alarming trend. In Western Australia, fees for some TAFE courses have tripled in the past five years, while courses in NSW are reported to have quadrupled. Unsurprisingly, these fee increases have caused a significant drop in enrolments and many TAFEs have been hallowed by the combination of funding cuts and fewer students.

Australia in fact spends more than the OECD average on tertiary education, but as Kelsey Munro of the Sydney Morning Herald points out, 'this is largely due to our investment in research which helps drive our universities' showings in the global rankings and hence attract international students.' Research is, of course, an important facet of universities' output, but when one of the primary motivations for funding our educational institutions is to entice foreign students, who in turn have to pay higher fees, it becomes clear that in Australia the economy of tertiary education takes precedence over actually educating. Our education model has lost sight of what's important.

federal budgets reflects our attitudes: towards business, towards education, and towards how we want to build our future

Education is not a business. Yet until we are able to take it outside of the framework of the economy, we won't be able to defend it from relentless budget cuts. To treat tertiary education only as money-making machine is to fail to recognise its most powerful potential: to create a better future for people.

Free or low-cost higher education is a reality in most European countries and in many others worldwide. It is not an unfeasible pipe dream, nor a gross mismanagement of taxpayers' money. It's something that developed countries should be able to provide for their citizens. Tertiary education should not just be a place to spit out a workforce as quickly and efficiently as possible, but a place for people to develop, to discover, and to grow into the best versions of themselves. Its value is intrinsic.

by Bella Peacock