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You say you want a revolution

By Steven Schwartz - posted Monday, 22 December 2008


In his essay, "The Hedgehog and the Fox", the British philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, quoted the Greek poet, Archilochus, as follows: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." According to Berlin, the fox pursues multiple ends, often unrelated and sometimes even contradictory. Hedgehogs, in contrast, focus on attaining a single goal.

The long-awaited Bradley review of higher education is certainly foxy; its 49 recommendations delve into every nook and cranny of higher education. This was inevitable given the review’s wide remit. Still, the review does contain two very big ideas - Australia needs more university graduates and university funding should be “driven by student demand”.

Who can argue with more university graduates? A nation of scholars imbued with a love of learning, seekers of wisdom and truth - a noble vision indeed. Alas, this is not quite what the review has in mind. It focuses mainly on economics.

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Australia’s standard of living, it says, depends on our winning an international educational competition for the most skilled workforce. Put simply, we need more graduates in order to ensure our national prosperity. (This is a matter for deeper discussion. Not all types of education are aimed at increasing the “bottom line” but let’s put this aside for now.)

Given that school leavers from middle class and professional backgrounds already attend university in large numbers, increasing the number of Australian graduates requires that capable students from currently under-represented backgrounds (low-income, rural, indigenous) enter higher education and successfully complete their degrees.

Many of the review’s recommendations proceed logically from this premise. If we want to attract more students from under-represented backgrounds, then we need outreach programs designed to raise aspirations and student support funds to help low-income students keep body and soul together while studying. We need to concentrate on outcomes rather than inputs and we should have agreed targets by which to measure progress.

All of these measures will increase social mobility - the hallmark of a just and meritocratic society. Many of the measures proposed in the review will help talented students to reach their potential and make their full contribution to society. These recommendations deserve to be carefully studied and implemented where possible.

The review’s other big idea - student-driven funding - will ensure a Commonwealth subsidised place to every student accepted by an approved higher education institution. Universities would be free to determine how many students they wish to enrol in various subjects and a new place would be created more-or-less automatically.

This reform has the potential to provide students with greater choice than they have now; it would also make it possible for universities to respond to student demand. It is a step in the right direction, but it is not a victory for the free-market champions who have advocated “vouchers” for years.

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The main reason is the review’s insistence that universities be forbidden from raising the level of private contribution that students make towards their education (that is, tuition fees would be capped at current levels).

The review recognises that price competition is a major mechanism for delivering efficiency, but claims that it is necessary to cap fees in order to keep “established” institutions from sharply raising prices.

For reasons that are never explained, the review takes it for granted that higher fees are bad even though it admits that many students would be happy to pay them. In reality, money spent on education has the same beneficial macro-economic effects as money spent on plasma televisions, holidays or anything else. It also has the spin-off effect of producing a higher skilled workforce.

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First published in The Australian December 17, 2008.



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About the Author

Steven Schwartz is a former vice-chancellor of Macquarie University.

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