Friday, November 14, 2014

Education - what does free mean?

At Whitlam’s memorial there was much mention, particularly by Cate Blanchett, of what his reforms to tertiary education had meant – for her personally but for Australia overall as well.

This was timely given the current attempts to make education far more expensive and to push the cost back onto individuals rather than Australia as a whole.

Broad-based access to education is critical to building  a highway to the future

It is sometimes argued that the reforms of the Whitlam Government benefited only middle class children, making free an education that their parents would otherwise have paid for, with the cost picked up by the taxpayer instead.

It’s quite clear that at least some working class children went to university as a result of the reforms. People often speak of being the first in their family to go. It’s also exaggerating the case to say that middle class children would have had their education paid for by their parents. Many middle class children wouldn’t have made it. In the era of Whitlam the middle class wasn’t as well off as it is now. We’d had too many years of economic boom and have forgotten how much harder it was at the time for a much greater proportion of the population. This debate then gets back to how cost-effective were the reforms, how many people went to university for free who would have gone anyway?

A highway to the future
This misses the underlying point, which is that it doesn’t really matter. If you view support for broad access to education, including education in the arts and culture professions, as a social investment which increases the productivity of the country as a whole, this argument becomes far less significant. There is still the question of how to pay for it but, like support for child rearing, it’s not a personal, individual cost with a personal individual benefit, but a social one. Society, through its government, needs to wear it.

In fact I would rather we didn’t mainly treat this issue as a matter of equity but instead as one of productivity and innovation. Any government that claims to be good at managing the economy should be thinking seriously about the long-term dynamic role of an educated population in economic well-being rather than of rigidly and narrowly balancing the books in the short term. There’s not much value in balancing the books if no-one can read.

It’s an issue that was sharply apparent in the debate over the Budget and I’ve covered some of those points in my articles at the time about different aspects of the Budget.

This is a consolidated version of an earlier post to my Facebook page 'indefinite article'.

See also

Selective drive-by shooting
‘The Budget was a selective drive-by shooting with easy targets including small arts. Entitlement continues for others.’ After the Budget: a selective drive-by shooting.

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