“Taxpayers shouldn’t fund arts degrees”: IPA

Institute of Public Affairs     |    11 June 2014


The Scan has certain leanings which aren’t at all in line with the ideological stance of the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA).  Nevertheless, we like to cover both sides of the street.  In this recent article in the Australian Financial Review, the IPA’s John Roskam decries the sense of entitlement of young people, particularly those who would undertake an Arts degree (“It’s not obvious why Australia needs more arts graduates anyway”). He seems to be missing something generally – the transformative nature of education generally – and something specifically, in that even arts graduates do go on to make vital contributions to society and the economy in a variety of ways, just as do graduates in other fields of education.  If you’re not an Arts graduate maybe you agree –  like what’s the contribution to the wellbeing of contemporary Australian society of learned articles on the “emergence of poetry in various Caribbean Creoles”.  I am an Arts graduate, so I think he’s obviously a chap who gives meaning to the adage about a person who knows the cost of everything and the value of very little.

Given the sense of entitlement young people have these days, it’s no surprise they’re outraged by the Abbott government’s higher education reforms. One of the things the Coalition wants to do is to increase the interest rate on the loans the government provides to students to pay for their tuition. Instead of the interest rate being based on inflation as now, it would be set according to the how much it costs the government to lend the students the money. This change would cost a typical university graduate paying off their loan over eight years an extra $3 a week. It’s no wonder so many university graduates have trouble adjusting to the real world. Rather than being grateful that half of their tuition is being paid for by taxpayers, students complain they’re being asked to pay $3 a week more for their degree.

Australian university students don’t realise just how fortunate they are. Arts students are especially fortunate. No one has yet asked why taxpayers should pay for even half of someone’s arts degree. If an individual wants to go to university to watch French cinema classics of the 1950s and write essays about it, they should be free to do so. That doesn’t mean taxpayers should pay for it. It’s not obvious why Australia needs more arts graduates anyway. Nearly a quarter of all students in higher education are enrolled in degrees in the field of “Society and Culture”.

Guise of the public good

Dr Ben Etherington is a lecturer in literature at the University of Western Sydney. He recently wrote an article complaining that if the tertiary sector is deregulated and students were required to pay more for their education then the “public good” would be damaged. His views are not untypical of many Australian university academics (and vice-chancellors).

According to Etherington, higher education is “socially and personally ameliorative”, and because universities pursue the public good by pursuing “unprofitable truth”, the 60% of the population who don’t go to university and who on average earn less than those with tertiary qualifications should pay the tuition fees of the 40% who do go to university.

His is one view. It’s the view that’s prevailed in this country since Robert Menzies commenced on his vast expansion of higher education in the 1950s.

Another view is that taxpayer-subsidised higher education is one of the more pernicious forms of welfare. It is not the welfare that transfers wealth from the rich to the poor to sustain a social safety net. Taxpayer-subsidised higher education does the opposite – the poor pay for the rich to go to university. If this was any other policy area, the left would be up in arms about what’s happening. But because this happens under the guise of the public good, it is applauded.


Let the market decide

Etherington’s scholarly research on the “emergence of poetry in various Caribbean Creoles” may or may not be for the public good. The best way to decide is to find out whether anyone (other than the government) is willing to pay for it.
If, in the brave new world of university deregulation, students flock to his lectures and they hand over their own money to be taught by him, then all power to Etherington.  Maybe those students will understand his doctorate on literary primitivism and its “revisionist” thesis “that primitivism is not a mode of representation that idealises a primitive ‘other’, but the attempt, through aesthetic practice, to enter into a disappearing primitive condition”.

If universities are deregulated, it will be the market, in the form of the choices students make, that decides what’s in the public good. Having “the market” decide anything is, of course, an anathema to most university academics and administrators.

Tony Abbott and Education Minister Christopher Pyne have started an important and overdue debate about the future of higher education in this country. As good a prime minister as John Howard was, it’s a debate not even he was willing to have.

At the core of that debate is the question of what is the public good. For too long, university students in this country have believed the public good entitled them to a degree paid for by someone else.

University students may soon realise their age of entitlement is over – as it is for every other Australian.

This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review 6 June 2014


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