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Australian Universities Accord lost in a mire of confusion about equity

By  Don Edgar  and  Patricia Edgar

Aug 5, 2023

3D Rendering of Graduation Cap, Books and staircase on blue background. Realistic 3d shapes. Education concept. Efforts to complete the study.

The Australian Universities Accord Interim Report shows an echidna on its cover, in keeping, Education Minister Jason Clare acknowledges, with the spikey issues he is attempting to address in the education system. His goal is to reduce inequality in Australian society while improving the quality of education across the system.

Clare gets the point that disadvantage starts in early childhood and early schooling, both of which require major change, but the assumption then that more disadvantaged students should be allowed free entry to a university seems misplaced. The fundamental problem the Minister is dealing with is that University education has been turned into a lucrative commodity, locking in both the institutions and the government to a revenue-gathering model focused on jobs rather than higher learning of social value.

When Gough Whitlam declared 'all education should be free for all', he meant access for anyone who met entry standards and no fees regardless of socioeconomic background. By the 1980s that had shifted to a line of equal opportunity (still based on merit) but with the neoliberal approach of user-pays, so that every university student had to repay HECS fees. It was no longer a policy of free education for all because there was a social benefit for all. Students who achieved a higher education were seen as privileged and therefore should be penalised by repayment of debt, for the 'private' gains that might come to them.

Now it seems that everyone should or must have a university degree because modern society demands it, when in fact there is a shortage of all sorts of skills that a university-level degree will not necessarily provide. Disadvantage, equal opportunity, and open access is being confused with the right of everyone to have a university qualification. And initial disadvantage will take a back seat until reforms to the whole education system (early childhood development, primary and secondary school) are made.

Ensuring qualified First Nations students have access to Commonwealth support is just a start. Most rural and lower socioeconomic students need access, but also ongoing financial support. Part of the systemic failure is that many university lecturers don't know how to teach effectively, avoiding the classroom to focus on research and publications and leaving the teaching/tutoring to inexperienced and underpaid post-graduate students.

Successive governments have effectively fostered the very 'elitist' model they pretend to deplore. The mistakes were in abolishing secondary technical schools, under-funding TAFE colleges, converting all Colleges of Advanced Education to Universities, pushing the notion that only a university degree will do, anything else was inferior.

If we want quality education and not just quantity of 'credentialled' workers coming out of higher education with inadequate thinking skills, let alone practical skills, we must accept that university education is a gain-expertise-deepen-your-knowledge process. But so, too, is extending one's knowledge and skills in more technical/trade areas - we don't call advanced plumbing elitist.

The sector is called 'higher education' for a reason: it builds on and extends 'primary' (basic or foundational) and 'secondary' (expanded, more specialised and in-depth) knowledge and abilities, and is not suitable for those who fail to make the grade.

Much of the failure in our system is due to the other difficulties faced by those from a disadvantaged background - lack of motivation and money, having to work a job outside their study area, pay rent during their time at university - not to mention the decline of any engaging on-campus life which may compensate for poor-quality teaching. Those matters can be addressed, and not just for indigenous or regional students.

Improvement will mean prompt action on other 'spikey' ideas flagged in the interim report - degrees tied to practical experience in the chosen field, 'bespoke' short courses tailored to the needs of business and industry instead of a continuous three or four year requirement; openness to mature-age students rather than reliance on school-completion marks, so that life and work experience count as much as exam scores and those previously excluded by disadvantage or lack of motivation can be drawn into the system and further their education in an area of interest.

The evidence is clear that disadvantage and inequity starts with family background: educated parents encourage their children to learn, attend kindergarten, apply themselves to study and have the money to send them to private schools with good resources. The skewing of government funding towards private schools and resultant degradation of quality in state schools is a major cause of the assumed elitism of university life. Of course, the already advantaged will dominate the numbers.

The Government's aim should be quality in all areas of education and learning for Australian students first. Clare knows this but the sale of education as an overseas commodity means his goals are in conflict. The myth that overseas students enrich the university environment must be exposed as wishful thinking: lack of English language skills, social segregation in both housing and social activities make for resentment, not warm multi-cultural feelings. (Ask students whose assignments have been based on group work.)

It's 'catch 22' for Jason Clare. There may be no votes in higher education, but universal pre-school and quality primary and secondary schooling have strong electoral support. With a government hell-bent on raising revenue, and a starved university system opportunistically accumulating funds from full-fee-paying overseas students a new University Accord will require Sisyphean efforts to achieve what the community wants and requires, a comprehensive quality education system that services Australian students from the day they enter preschool.