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Higher education: a “public good” or “pernicious welfare” ?

20 June 2014

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In this op-ed piece originally published in The Australian, Ben Etherington (Univeristy of Western Sydney) takes issue with John Roskam’s proposition that “taxpayer-subsidised higher education is one of the more pernicious forms of welfare“.  Among other things, Roskam queried the relevance of studying the “emergence of poetry in various Caribbean Creoles”,  Etherington’s current project.
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Budget 2

“In an era of busy government and constant change, it’s insufficiently recognised how often masterly inactivity can be the best contribution that government can make to a particular sector. A period of relative policy stability in which changes already made can be digested and adjusted to … is probably what our universities most need now.” That sounds reasonable.

As does this: “If we have to change it, we will consult beforehand rather than impose it unilaterally and argue about it afterwards. We understand the value of stability and certainty, even to universities.”

Here’s another great line: “Reasonable public investment in higher education is not dudding poorer people to help richer people: it’s strengthening our human capital in ways that ultimately benefit everyone.”

Like the reassurances given to Ford factory workers about car manufacturing and a “sophisticated economy”, Tony Abbott’s speech to Universities Australia now looks like pure expediency.

There is an unfortunate symmetry here. Like car manufacturing, public universities were a great success of Menzies-era nation-building.

Public universities flourished at that time because liberals, socialists and conservatives all agreed on their value, albeit in line with different world views. Debates between these outlooks did not concern the right of public universities to exist; they were internal to universities, taking the form of intellectual struggles over the value of different modes of inquiry and relative importance of different disciplines.

All held in common the assumption that “universities serve the public good because their mission is to pursue unprofitable truth”; words which I used in the HES a fortnight ago. They were provocative enough to prompt John Roskam, director of the Institute for Public Affairs, to argue that funding universities on the grounds that they serve the public good is “pernicious welfare”. The public good can be determined only by what people are willing to pay for: “it will be the market, in the form of the choices students make, that decides what’s in the public good,” he wrote in The Australian Financial Review.

Why does the public good even figure in his argument? To understand this we need to insert a missing term: “it will be the market in the form of the rationally self-interested choices students make, that decides what’s in the public good”. It is the public good because it is founded on the only rationality you can count on: consumer behaviour.

Roskam is not arguing for an end to public spending on education. Public funds are rightfully spent if distributed through the consumer choices of rational economic agents.

This is a world view that, as we all know, has dominated discussion for many years.What it entails concretely is diverting taxpayer dollars to for-profit institutions that are under no obligation whatsoever to serve the public good.

What is confusing about all this is that none of it squares with Abbott’s conservatism: values which were in plain view in his address to Universities Australia. Particularly, the principle that changing institutions should never be undertaken lightly.

Something has gone awry. Instead of regarding this about-turn as revealing the “real Abbott”, we need to ask how flippant hipster neoliberals, alongside lobbying from private colleges, have managed so quickly to hijack the higher education portfolio.

See
The 7 pillars of Coalition HE policy
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