Australia is working on its higher education system in order to keep it from falling behind in the intellectual arms race that is university education. But instead of finding new ways to reform its system, the current Aussie government has decided to use more of the American system, a decision which seems questionable to some observers. The problem is not that Australia is failing miserably at university education. Historically, the antipodean country has done better than the United States in subjects like math and science. But there is a problem with finding adequate funding for universities and that is where much of the changes are focused. In the area of fees and government support, America is providing a model for how to fund higher education in Australia and it might just do the trick, though not without some consequences.
To boil the matter down to its most basic parts, Australia is considering adding two facets to its funding system. It would provide more government funding to privately owned universities and it would deregulate the fees that universities are allowed to charge their students, both of which the United States has already done. This constitutes a drastic change in the land down under, which has not done either measure until this time. There are state-funded universities, but few if any government funded for private, or for profit institutions. There are also regulations on how much universities can charge their students in fees, a measure which has kept costs for attendees relatively low. But the outcome of these policies has been that Australian universities lack as much funding as they need. Costs may be low for students, but there simply is not enough income for the universities from that source to keep running.
Supporters of the changes claim that they would help keep Australian universities sustainable and ramp up quality. The relationship between money and quality education is clearly seen in America, which has many of the world’s top universities. An education at Harvard is not cheap, but it is also one of the best and most respected institutions in the world. Australia could have its own version of Harvard if there was enough money to support it. Right now, that money is not coming from students, so new fonts of income must be found. Government funding is one option and the other is to have students pay more, at least for certain areas, like business or law, which generally yield higher incomes after graduation.
There is certainly a problem with how much money has been spent per student. While universities have expanded to allow more students to attend, government funding has not expanded, creating a serious deficit in cost per student that universities have shouldered. Such a trend is not sustainable and increasing government funding is a reasonable idea. The problem for Australia, however, is that the current government is working on balancing a budget that is notoriously bad. Spending cuts in areas of healthcare are already threatened, so an increase in spending for universities will most likely not be a welcome announcement. In fact, it just might make the current government look pretty silly after all its talk of cutting spending.
The idea of deregulating fees, however, does not carry with it the awkwardness of national budget hypocrisy, but it is also not without its problems. The Greens party in Australia has called this measure “elitist,” arguing that the top universities would charge the biggest fees. This would mean that the best education available in Australia would only be available to students who could afford it or were willing to go into massive debt to get there. The Greens believe this would create more education inequality and make education an elitist ideal, substantially disadvantaging lower income persons seeking an education.
There is little debate over whether or not this will actually happen because it seems to be the most reasonable description of the outcome of deregulating fees, thereby allowing them to balloon. There is debate, however, on whether that is a bad thing. Some have argued that it could be a good thing, one that would create greater quality as the price rises. If universities are offering the best education, then people should be willing to pay more for that higher quality. Not only would people be assured of receiving the best education money can buy, the universities would be saved by the increased income. The problem solves itself.
This is the biggest resemblance between proposed changes to Australia’s higher education system and America’s. Americans pay notoriously high amounts to attend universities and, in general, do receive some of the best educations in the world. In fact, the United States has the highest rating overall out of any other country according to Universitas 21, which ranks countries’ education systems annually. The United States is the standard for higher education to which all other countries are compared. The 2013 rankings had Australia in 8th place overall. It is easy to see why Australia might be so keen on being more like the United States. But is using America as a model for higher education really the best thing for students in Australia?
Ask a recent graduate from any undergraduate institution in the United States and they would probably tell you, “No.” While America is the best overall, its students also have the highest rate of student debt in the world and many students are simply unable to pay it back, leading to defaulted loans. There are a variety of factors that play into this situation and not all are the universities’ fault, but one key area is: the price.
Some people in America are really worried that higher education is failing its students. American students are famous for not meeting the standards in math and science set in countries like China and Japan. Even Australia is beating the United States in these easily quantifiable areas. Perhaps more importantly, American students are not making significant gains in education when compared to other countries and its rate of change has not increased very much. The data points to American education being only a middling enterprise that is lagging behind other countries. Nevertheless, American education is the most expensive in the world meaning that students in the United States are shouldering massive amounts of debt.
So there are good points and bad points to Australia’s possible education changes. On the one hand, universities might actually have the funding they need to thrive and grow their reputations as world class institutions of higher learning. That is a good and necessary thing. But on the flip side, students might end up shouldering more of the financial burden than they ever have before, which could create a system in which higher education is open only to elites. This could result in either more student debt like there is in the United States, or it could simply mean that fewer Australians will be entering universities at all. There will no doubt be consequences for using America as its model for higher education, but hopefully it will not affect Australian students as adversely as it has American ones.
Opinion By Lydia Webb