Margaret Thornton: A culture of consumerism

Margaret Thornton: A culture of consumerism
Paper presented at Institutions, Capitalism and Dissent: A Rogue Education Conference, Trades Hall, Melbourne, 14-16 September 2007
Margaret Thornton, President, Association for the Public University
Professor of Law, ANU

The Market Turn

A transformation of higher education has been effected in Australia with amazing rapidity. In less than twenty years, it has changed from being a public good, freely available to all, to a commodity for which users pay. Graduates have undoubtedly always sought to capitalise on the credentialism associated with their degrees by securing well paid jobs, but paying high fees is significantly affecting the public good, as well as what is taught and how it is taught.

The political swing from social liberalism to neoliberalism saw the privatisation of public goods, such as utilities, transport and welfare. Rather than floating public universities as new companies on the stock exchange, the government adopted a userpays model, although private for-profit providers have also been permitted to appear on the scene.

While the user-pays model has elicited some desultory opposition, an incremental approach and the use of clever semantics has served to quell all but a few dissentient voices. Commonwealth government support now accounts for only about 38 per cent of university income, compared with 77 per cent in 1989. This is a striking manifestation of the neoliberal imperative to slough off responsibility for public goods. In light of the general acquiescence on the part of the community, it is likely that professional disciplines will soon receive no per capita government funding at all.

Fees were introduced in 1989 when the Dawkins reforms came into effect, but funding did not increase proportionately. The linguistic trick to win over students accustomed to free higher education was to eschew the language of ‘fees’ in favour of ‘contributions’ – the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS). The real sweetener of the loans scheme is that repayment is deferred until the student is earning a specified minimum ($38,148, 2007 figure), (1) when the loan is recoverable through the taxation system.

Initially, HECS was set at a modest $1,800 across the board, but was gradually increased with differential disciplinary rates. The change from state funding to user pays is most graphically illustrated by the discipline of law. In 2007, the student contribution is $8,333, the highest HECS band, while the government contribution is $1,528, the lowest on a 10-band scale.

Full Fees

Despite student contributions, the decline in operating grants meant that universities were unable to balance their budgets. Hence, the second step in the commodification of higher education was that they were compelled to generate revenue themselves. Partial de-regulation meant that they could offer full-fee courses that received no direct government support. By accepting the market message, universities, like students, have become complicit in the privatisation of public education.

A plethora of undergraduate, postgraduate and short courses have been devised for domestic and overseas full-fee students, both on-line and face-to-face. Once again, the crassness of the money-generating side of these activities has been softened through the creation of a new government loans system – FEE-HELP – which operates in the same way as HECS-HELP, that is, repayment is contingent on attaining the same level of income and is recoverable through the taxation system.

The new scheme allows loans of up to $80,000 in order to undertake full-fee course. There is no cap on what fees a university might charge; it is left entirely to the vagaries of the market. The attractiveness to universities of full fees is apparent in the increase in enrolment of international students which represent a dramatic 24 per cent of all student enrolments, compared with four per cent in 1988. The lifting of the ban on full fees for domestic students has encouraged most institutions to follow this path. Places are usually offered concurrently to both HECS students and full fee payers, although some courses, such as management, are exclusively full fee-paying.

Given the incremental approach to date, the proportion of full fee places can be expected to increase. For example, it is likely that all law students will pay full fees in the future. This impetus will receive a boost when Melbourne commences its new Juris Doctor (JD) or graduate law degree in 2008. Other universities are preparing to follow suit. Through what is referred to as ‘McDonaldization’ by George Rizer, competition in the market fosters standardisation and sameness; the difference is likely to be trivial, as in the packaging of hamburgers or breakfast cereals. Despite the rhetoric, full fees discourage diversity.

The distorting effect of the market can be seen by the fact that entry to full-fee places is less competitive, with ENTER scores as much as 20 points below that for HECS students. Whatever, one might say about the possible inequities obscured by a numerical system, such as class background, status and location of school attended, lowering the score for full fee payers sends an overt message that wealth trumps merit.

The fact that students may transfer to a government-funded place at the end of their first year if they perform creditably also undermines the idea of the ‘public’ in public education. Furthermore, subjecting higher education to market forces means that the ‘brand name’ of some universities is going to carry a greater cachet than others by dint of age and location. Thus ‘Sandstones’, such as Melbourne University, have at least a 100-year advantage over other metropolitan universities in Melbourne in terms of their positional goods. The ability of the Sandstones to charge high fees is predicated upon years of public support from taxpayers.

If there has been concern expressed by the public, the focus has been on equitable access. A user-pays system has a significant class bias built into it. Well-to-do students are obviously more likely to have ready access to the money for full fees than those from modest backgrounds. Even if they don’t have the cash at hand, borrowing large amounts of money for what is seen as an investment is less alien for middle class students, who may be intimidated by the prospect of substantial debt.

The federal Government discounts the equity argument in light of the availability of FEE-HELP to everyone. Universities that charge full fees have salved their consciences by promising scholarships for a few able students from ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’. Apart from the invidiousness of talented young adults being expected to step into the subject position of ‘needy person’ to compete for a heretofore public good, a market-based system is inevitably going to carry with it the seeds of inequality. The privatisation of higher education causes Australian egalitarianism to become an historical aberration and accentuates the ever-widening gap between the Haves and the Have-nots.

At the Coalface

Once students have been transformed into consumers, it is inevitable that they should be more interested in the product being purchased – the credentialism – rather than the nature of the knowledge acquired along the way. Large debts mean that they want to complete in minimum time in order to start repayment. Their preferred destinations are the corporations that pay the highest salaries. Many are already working, often full-time, partly to live and partly to pay off debts, but also to give themselves an edge in the labour market. One study revealed that the average undergraduate enrolled in a full-time course is engaged in 15 hours of paid work per week. (2)

This means that some students who are enrolled in full-time courses are also engaged in full-time work. They want flexible delivery, which includes evening classes, block teaching and prepackaged material posted on the Internet.

Students are less interested in the humanistic, social justice and contextual aspects of  their education, not just because of the additional investment of time involved, but because it is technocratic and applied knowledge that the market values. We see a turning away, not only from the more speculative subjects in favour of applied knowledge, but also a turning away from theoretical and critical perspectives in all aspects of the curriculum. In the end, it is easier for lecturers to capitulate to the customers’ demands and omit theory and critique altogether.

Even if students attend classes; their experience has changed. Lectures were a creation of the universities of the Middle Ages when there were few books. Now, universities in the Communication Age are once again embracing this passive form of pedagogy and moving away from resource-greedy small groups that enable interactive learning, questioning and critique. The favoured mode of assessment has also regressed – to exams with their focus on superficial knowledge and the regurgitation of information rather than reflective essays.

Conclusion: The Democratic Retreat

As the cost of higher education has shifted to students, the character of the university has changed. Instead of being members of a community of scholars, they are being transformed into consumers purchasing a ticket to the corporate track. Nevertheless, it is with students that hope for the future lies. Since they are now paying the bulk of the cost of their degrees themselves, they are in a strong position to exercise their consumer power. Some students in full fee courses may be paying well over 100 per cent of the cost of their tuition. Rather than focusing simply on the question of getting in, I exhort students to consider just what it is they are getting into. If they fail to address this vital issue, not only will the quality of higher education be impoverished, but also the future of our democratic society will be jeopardised.

An educated citizenry is essential for a democratic society, which requires much more than the memorisation and regurgitation of known knowledge, particularly the critical interrogation of that knowledge. The production of docile citizens suits the market as the mere transmission of information not only suppresses discomfiting questions about the activities of multinational corporations, but the machinations of the neoliberal state. The ratcheting up of fees can only accentuate these trends.

Despite the revolution in higher education, it has barely raised a ripple in recent elections. Unlike the US, the public funding of private schools in Australia is accepted as a norm. Since the DOGS case (Attorney-General (Vic); Ex rel Black v Commonwealth (1981) CLR 559), state aid to private schools has increased apace, particularly under conservative governments, while public education has become impoverished, a factor that has hastened middle class flight. The fact that there is broad acceptance of the idea that it is seemly for the public purse to fund an inequitable education system at the primary and secondary levels has paved the way for privatisation at the tertiary level. While lily-livered politicians turn away from the slow destruction of our universities because privatisation at the school level is so contentious, their inaction has allowed the evisceration of the idea of the public from the public university. It is up to us not to allow them to get away with it.

* Related papers by the author that might be of interest include ‘Among the Ruins: Law in the Neo-Liberal Academy’ (2001) 20 Windsor Yearbook of Access to Justice 3-23; ‘The Demise of Diversity in Legal Education: Globalisation and the New Knowledge Economy’ (2001) 8(1) International J Legal Profession 37-56; ‘Neo-liberal Melancholia: The Case of Feminist Legal Scholarship’ (2004) 20 Aust Feminist L J 7-22; ‘Corrosive Leadership (Or Bullying by another Name): A Corollary of the Corporatised Academy?’ (2004) 17(2) Aust J Labour Law 161-84; The Neo-liberal University and the Governance Trap’

(1) Payment options & HECS-HELP

(2) Australian undergraduates enrolled in full-time courses now undertake an average of 15 hours paid work per week. See Craig McInness & Robin Hartley, Managing Study and Work: The Impact of Fulltime Study and Paid Work on the Undergraduate Experience in Australian Universities, DEST, Canberra, 2002