Would you work for $160 a week? $32 a day? $4 an hour? If you're a budding doctor or lawyer it's more like $2.67 an hour - and less again if you also do voluntary community work. If you had to live on this sort of money would you feel as though you had no value, respect, freedom, or hope of looking beyond the next gas bill?
Such is the life of an independent student in receipt of Youth Allowance payments.
I've argued previously that the quality of higher education attained by academically-inclined Australians has been compromised by the imperative to award everyone a degree.
It also seems to be true that serious students have to live in poverty while they try to create knowledge or toil in the hope of one day contributing significantly to society, because the funding allocated to the Youth Allowance/Austudy schemes is spread very thinly. And while it might be true that many peoples' "studies" contribute nothing to society and thus they don't merit additional compensation, this notion is not universally applicable.
It seems to me to make little sense that a student at one of Australia's elite universities receives the same government assistance as a student at one of our second- and third-rate universities or TAFE colleges. The amount of work that somebody does in order to study medicine is incomparable to the amount of work somebody does in order to study a diploma in horticulture.
High-achievers, irrespective of discipline, have one thing in common - an amazing capacity for hard work. It is true that most are intelligent but this is not the characteristic that takes people to the top, for there are equally capable people that do well but not nearly so well. Walk into a law library at the start of a semester and people are putting in 60-hour weeks while TAFE students copy answers out of text books the night before a piece of assessment is handed in. But we can go a step further with this critique. In every discipline, there are first-class honours students and bare-pass students. Again, the only thing that separates these people is their work ethic.
Now, what happens when these people go into the employment marketplace? They are compensated according to their abilities. Any old graduate engineer has a higher monetary value than any old TAFE graduate. And the highest-ranking engineer will get a better job than the lowest-ranked engineer. In society, we accept this as reasonable.
We operate under a model of social organisation that is based on differential rewards and incentives. People congratulate their friends when they get good jobs irrespective of what they themselves do. There is no reason why we shouldn't implement a scale of differential rewards to students that is reflective of individual ability. This could be implemented in one of two ways. First, tertiary places could be drastically cut as I suggested in my previous article thus increasing the pool of funds available for sharing among those who do make it into higher education. This, however, would not be my preferred path to a better higher-education system.
I think the ambit of reducing the number of people studying could be achieved by implementing a disincentive for those not cut-out for the gig. And it would work something like this.
Those people studying a course for which an ENTER score of below 70 was required would remain on the current rate. Those who are studying a course requiring something in the range of 70-80 automatically receive an extra $100 per fortnight. Between 80 and 90 an extra $130; 90+, an extra $160. That should take the payments of every student attending one of the Group of Eight universities up to between $420 and $480 a fortnight.
From this point, those who achieve a HD/H1 average for an entire semester's work are eligible for an additional $160 for the whole of the next semester (D/H2A or H2B - $130, C/H3 - $100). The majority of students attending elite universities and working hard would, by this stage, be receiving assistance of between $520-$640 per fortnight. Now, this isn't a lot of money but it's significantly more than anyone receives at present; it's enough for students to reconsider the amount of hours they spend working in casual or part-time jobs; and it discourages those studying at lower levels.
However, these people need not despair because once a great many of the high-achievers begin opting out of the casual employment trap, then to whom will the extra hours be offered? Once the number of hours available to those who only ever wanted a job in the first place increase significantly, then what will they opt out of? And as the number of people opting out of pointless tertiary courses increases, the labour market will be transformed significantly.
One of the main factors driving the casualisation of our workforce has, in fact, been the amount of demand that has existed for flexible employment. It is simplistic to say that employers are solely responsible for the casual employment trend in this country. Indeed, students, by the very nature of their lifestyles, have had a requirement for casual positions. But if positions are increasingly filled by people who have no other focus in their lives, by people no longer being bluffed into thinking they will soon be moving onto something better, then the demand for more permanent employment will presumably increase. Demand will eventually turn into pressure. And pressure will be replaced by expectation.
So, it seems to make sense, from a social perspective, to award students according to their talents and work ethic.