Joining a sinking ship

According to news reports, Education Minister Christopher Pyne is going to reprise his successful Gonski exercise of last year with an attempt to remodel the Australian university system along US lines, as recommended by former Howard education minister David Kemp and his adviser Andrew Norton. In particular, he hopes to expand the role of the private sector.

Apparently none of these people have read the stream of reports coming out of the US making the points that

* Whereas the US was once the world leader in the proportion of young people getting university education it now trails much of the OECD (including, if I got the numbers right, Australia)
* US university education, even in the state system, is ruinously unaffordable
* The top tiers of the US system are increasingly closed to students from all but the top 5 per cent (or less) of the income distribution
* The US has the most inequality and some of the lowest social mobility in the developed world
* For-profit education in the US is a scam, based on exactly the mechanism promoted by Kemp and Norton, namely access to public funding/

The US tertiary education system is now like the US health system: world-beating for the 1 per cent, high-quality but incredibly expensive for the top 20, unaffordable or non-existent for the middle class and the poor. And this is the model the LNP wants to emulate

39 thoughts on “Joining a sinking ship

  1. @bjb

    I can see the benefit of charging law students much higher fees (given they are mostly drawn from the upper socio-economic demographic anyway

    Well if you charge higher fees that will certainly ensure they CONTINUE to be drawn from that demographic. What a wonderful way of keeping the riff-raff out.

    Surely it’s precisely those studies that are traditionally for the upper crust where you most need to make sure the barriers are academic, not financial. Even with present arrangements very few people can study for six years to become a doctor, for example, unless mummy and daddy can give some support (for a start, you can’t do much part time work with those courses. And Austudy is too low to live on on its own for that long).

  2. What I’ll add will only be superfluous but, why is the global Right so maniacal as to this re-feudalisation of civilisation at the expense of something less sadistic and more rational, we already had a basic blueprint for?

    How has our success turned us back into Apes?

    I think PM Lawrence’s idea re Protestant iconclasm works, it seems an early form of reactionary modernism, seen in the light PM presents it… maybe we could also consider the Catholic church attitude to science in a similar vein, as a form of primitive denialism.

    Sorry, I just don’t get the Right wing mentality.

    Can someone explain?

  3. paul walter :
    What I’ll add will only be superfluous but, why is the global Right so maniacal as to this re-feudalisation of civilisation at the expense of something less sadistic and more rational, we already had a basic blueprint for?
    How has our success turned us back into Apes?
    I think PM Lawrence’s idea re Protestant iconclasm works, it seems an early form of reactionary modernism, seen in the light PM presents it… maybe we could also consider the Catholic church attitude to science in a similar vein, as a form of primitive denialism.
    Sorry, I just don’t get the Right wing mentality.
    Can someone explain?

    I’m trying to figure out how you get from me to an idea of mine about Protestant iconoclasm. Can you clarify? The nearest I can get is my mention of English educational experience after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. But that was something else that happened a generation or so afterwards, the realisation that there was a shortfall of needed educated people, and not iconoclasm at all. That in turn gave rise to a crop of charitably endowed schools supervised by nouveau riche livery companies and the like, schools that eventually evolved into the British public schools (“public” as in “public telephone”, meaning accessible to the public rather than provided free to the public – though scholarships never ceased, they became proportionally fewer than paid places and covered proportionally less).

  4. @John Brookes

    Take computing… The people who write computer software, they can learn it on the job

    I’ve worked with the “learn it on the job” types, and even the smart ones were not good at it. There’s a point where being clever has to have something to build on, and what it builds on is knowing what other people have already done. Otherwise you end up repeating previous work and often not doing it as well. Although at least with software generally few people die, which you can’t say about medicine or economics.

    For that matter, it’s appalling that we let people play with the levers of power with no training. You can’t practice law without a licence, but you can write legislation. As we’re seeing right now at state level, letting muppets who “just know” what needs to be done pull out the crayons in the houses of parliament leads to mistakes that kill people.

  5. @iain

    I think larger employers, as the link seems to indicate, will move away from simply accepting a brand degree as evidence of (a) the mastery of a body of relevant knowledge and (b) the capacity to acquire new knowledge. Especially since the incidence of sophisticated cheating (in particular student substitution) is essentially unknowable, but certainly present. MOOC variants, whether originating in sandstone or not, mean the knowledge is on the loose rather than locked away in an ivory tower, and smart employers will move into academic assessment themselves (ie, examine selected applicants formally) which along with techniques for assessing interpersonal skills and decision-making nous, will provide a well-rounded basis for recruitment.

  6. @Ikonoclast

    Ikon at 21

    Yes, education should be free in a free society, especially such a wealthy one.

    ‘The future is far from predictable so a broad education system in all the major and minor arenas of learning is vital to maintain national flexibility and responsiveness to change.’

    True, but I would add ‘basic’ to ‘broad’ as a goal in education, with the focus naturally moving from the former to the latter throughout the student’s life. While a broad focus will help us to be better prepared for an unpredictable future, we must structurally embed into our school education the most basic skills required, not just to prosper but to survive. I agree we need more baskets for our eggs but the first ones our ancestors made, the ones that have seen us through the last hundreds, even thousands of years, must be maintained at all costs.

    While we are ultimately unsure what will occur in the future, we shouldn’t ignore the past, which can provide a few clues for what we might expect… natural disaster, war, depression, climate change, resource shortages, or simply centuries long periods of kleptocratic feudal stagnation. How many of us are optimised for survival let alone prosperity in violently changed circumstances? If we went back even 50 years, how much more prepared would our parents or grandparents have been? It seems to me the further we go back (into less specialised times) the better prepared we’d be for whatever nature and history could throw at us. ‘Progress’ has taken us out on a limb, past in a generation or two all that boring tried and true knowledge that ensured we got this far in the first place. We don’t want any effort to push out the boundaries of broadness, ie specialisation, to detract from the primary requirement that we individually and collectively have a better Plan B for changed circumstances, whether local or general.

    Primary school children should learn the three Rs first and foremost, and participate in sport, but they should also be introduced to basic food gardening, animal husbandry, cooking and preserving, carpentry, and as they mature electrical circuitry and software design, nutrition and phys ed, accounting/finance and money/economics (these last of course need to be freed from the neolib mainstream to emphasise alternatives to the current elite-serving set-up). While we still need to produce masters of each trade, we must produce more jacks of all of them, at least the most vital. We might as a corollary end up with more masters… certainly I think we would end up with a more resourceful populace.

    Needless to say, while every individual citizen is free to comment and contribute, the corporate sector must not be permitted a foothold.

  7. @Ikonoclast
    Errk thanks Ikon – sorry I should know by now that Jetlag and a few glasses of wine are not a good combination! There was probably something in the flash of insight I thought I got last night, but not nearly as dramatic as it seemed to me then! I do feel bad about having been a smartarse young student with my scholarship and patronising my mum, who was just as intelligent but was never given the chances I was. Anyway as you say, best thing is to try to learn from the past rather than dwelling on it.

  8. @Moz in Oz
    I’m sure you are right about software writing being best not left to those who have learned on the job. Indeed I have known clever people get a workable result but well trained professionals criticise the clumsiness of it as a result of the writers not knowing the tricks of the trade.

    As to software writers not killing as many people as economists and medical doctors that cannot be anything like an a priori truth as you only have to think what could happen to aircraft or power stations to envisage great disasters. So is it an empirical truth?

    I think you may be attributing too much of the blame for bad or badly drafted legislation to MPs. Those who have been half decent lawyers cab normally, if they give the time to it pick the problems in drafts produced, as they nearly always are, by parliamentary counsel as they have come to be called now for some decades. Parliamentary Counsel are often starting a long way behind scratch in knowing the relevant law that they are expected to draft amendments to. So don’t blame non-lawyer MPs who may have perfectly sensible policy ideas that, unfortunately, they can’t rely on Parliamentary Counsel to turn into workable legislation or advise adequately about the problems.

  9. Catch 22. You abolish, or tax to death, private schools. From those not in the top 0.5 per cent of income or wealth you here a sigh of relief. The buy or rent a residence in a high income suburb where the schools are the best and use the money saved on fees to hire tutors and place their kids in foreign families where the can perfect a foreign language..

  10. @John Brookes
    “The people who write computer software” … I wonder who they are?They must be the people who understand polymorphic behaviour, or the ones who know how to normalise data to the nth normal form or perhaps they understand 20 years of middleware developments and how to integrate them. Or perhaps they know how to look up formula help in Excel. I can deduce from your comment which one you are.

  11. Midrash @ 34. Regarding the drafting of legislation. What is your opinion of game theorists’ critique of the drafting of laws?

    @35. Your comment assumes a unique culture world-wide. This is not true empirically. In some societies, private schools have a very low reputation among the population because they are considered as places where the super rich hide their academically uncompetitive or ill behaved or both off-springs from public light. Furthermore, your comment makes sense only in a society where significant income inequality is the norm and presumed to be desirable – the greater the inequality the better.

    There is a distinction between the acceptance that, due to several factors, the incomes of people at any time in their life and over their life are not numerically equal and the idea that any degree of income inequality is consistent with social cohesion, the idea of a market economy within the limits where it can function, and the idea of democracy.

    The behaviour you describe is, IMO, a pathetic attempt by people to avoid ‘competition’ for their offsprings while mouthing ‘competition’. It may also be a modern version of conspicuous consumption in the sense of Veblen.

  12. @Glenn Condell

    Broadly, I agree. I can remember the 3Rs being dinned into me in the early grades. I don’t recall repetitive learning bothering me at that young age. Given that young children are such learning sponges (I mean that in a good way) I think that adding in basic food gardening, animal husbandry, cooking and preserving, carpentry could only be a good thing. Schools would need to be well equipped to deliver all that.

  13. @Patrickb

    Yes, I was being sloppy. But there are programming jobs that don’t need much more than an organised mind and an ability to code. I’m just making the case that university training is not necessary for every occupation.

    And also that sometimes its far more effective if education/training is delivered alongside work. I did some IT training after I’d worked a little in IT. The training made sense to me, but only based on my actual experience. Without the experience the training would have been meaningless. So the apprenticeship model of integrated training and work is better in some situations.

    The other problem with too much education is that you end up eliminating people who would be perfectly capable of actually doing the job.

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