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Paul Monk

Published in Australian Financial Review, Aug 4 2003

The ALP has called its higher education reform package ‘Aim Higher: Learning, Training and Better Jobs for all Australians’. It declares that its aim is nothing less than to “create a world leading system of lifelong learning for all Australians.” Simon Crean and Jenny Macklin appear to believe that this lofty goal (whatever exactly it means) can be achieved by spending about five hundred million extra dollars of public money a year. I think their rhetoric is inflated and their financial thinking anachronistic.

Nowhere in the ALP policy document is the soaring idea of “a world leading system of lifelong learning for all Australians” defined. Nor does it apparently occur to the authors of the document that it is rather pompous for the ALP to talk of “creating” such a system. This is still the rhetoric of Jacobin social engineers; a species of overweening governmental presumption that I’d have thought twentieth century history might have given the quietus to by now.

It’s a fine idea to think of all Australians learning new things throughout their lives, but I suggest that this is not the primary purpose of higher education. That purpose, more or less by definition, is to lead gifted individuals well beyond basic knowledge and skills, so that they can take responsibility for the many complex challenges our form of society must deal with.

Those who lack such gifts, or who are not preparing themselves to take such responsibility, certainly require various forms of education and training. They should not, however, be regarded as the recipients of something called ‘higher education’. Much of the confusion in this regard must be laid at the door of the ALP reformers of the 1980s, who blurred the distinctions between higher education and training and relabeled all sorts of training institutions “universities”.

We should, therefore, put to one side the rather fanciful vision of higher education as a ‘world leading system of lifelong learning for all Australians’. We should think, instead, of a higher education sector which would give priority to first class learning with the goal of taking responsibility for various complex tasks in society. This task, as distinct from the ALP’s woolly desideratum, is something that reasonably hard-headed financial thinking can be done about.

The recipients of such higher education have every reason to take as much responsibility as they can for the funding of their own education. It will increase the likelihood of this occurring if incentives are put in place to encourage them to do so. In regard to such individuals, to say nothing of less gifted individuals, the idea that one has a “right” to a university degree is pernicious.

Rather, it should be understood that individuals will be encouraged to enter into higher education just to the extent that they demonstrate a determination to take responsibility for their learning, for the livelihood they hope to gain from it and for the role in society that their gifts enable them to aspire to. I see somewhat more of this philosophy in the Coalition’s higher education reform package than in the ALP’s.

The ALP’s policy paper attacks the Coalition for draining resources from the higher education sector, but this is a red herring. The Coalition has made it perfectly clear that it considers higher education to be in need of considerably more resources and of considerable reform. It just doesn’t subscribe to the Whitlamesque assumption that all the extra resources should come out of the public coffers - already strained by the unending welfare demands that even the Coalition has not been able to wind back significantly.

As the Coalition’s policy paper, ‘Our Universities: Backing Australia’s Future’ makes explicit, higher education needs more resources, but “money is only half the problem. Increased funding without changes to administration, regulation and perverse incentives for institutional and individual behaviour will only compound the significant challenges facing the sector.”

I have no confidence in the ALP’s prescription and am inclined to think that even the Coalition has not been as bold as it could be. Our universities will flourish when the Whitlam-induced sense of entitlement has been replaced by a determination on the part of individuals, families, communities and the business world that they shall achieve excellence in higher education - whatever it takes.

In short, the ALP talks grandiosely of aiming high, but it is merely shooting into the air. The target has to be excellence and excellence requires initiative, responsibility, competition, winners and losers, demanding standards and rewards commensurate with effort - virtues more characteristic of the private than of the public sector. The ALP would do better to aim at the real target than to boast idly of how high into the air it can shoot its rhetorical arrows.