Higher education should be a right in an economy such as Australia’s. But as a nation, we’re struggling to understand what a university education represents, and how to engage with this on an effective and equitable level.

Fundamentally, the way education is framed in Australia is problematic. A free higher education here will never be equitable if our schooling system remains as it is now. Current university education is not integrated well with the labour market’s needs. The opportunity cost of attending university needs to be made clearer, with vocational alternatives being made equally attractive. On top of all of this, university spending needs to be majorly reformed.

So how do we infuse our education system with equality? If we take a look at the way this is currently playing out around the world, we might find what needs to change before it can happen in Australia.

Let’s reacquaint ourselves with the famed ‘golden era’ of free higher education in Australia.

In 1974, the Australian university system shifted to a fee-free set-up, pre-empted in Whitlam’s rallying exclamation ‘We believe that a student’s merit, rather than a parent’s wealth, should decide who should benefit from the community’s vast financial commitment to tertiary education.’

Yes, Whitlam pioneered an equality-driven change in Australia. But even in doing so, there’s a perceived competition and meritocracy inherent in the conditions under which one acquires this tertiary education. One must earn access to it via their ‘merit’; it’s no civil right. The attitude surrounding higher education remains exclusive, and as a commodity to be acquired (whether through merit or money).

This attitude needs to change before anything else.

The Finnish higher education system not only provides a free university education to its own citizens, but extends that to international students, with its students, politicians, and academics claiming that ‘a tuition-free system supports international social justice by giving students from developing countries an opportunity to participate in higher education.’

Championing international social justice is a wonderful thing to do, and not surprisingly, is afforded by an economy that has long focused its priorities on internal equality. The common perception is that countries like Finland have strong economies as a result of putting their citizens through university. The situation is more nuanced than that, boiling down to the cultural values coinciding with strong social security, and viewing education as infrastructure rather than industry.

These societal goals and social dynamics of higher education in Nordic countries are currently at odds with those of countries where university tuition fees are charged (UK, US or Australia).

The interesting thing is that in the countries where higher education is offered free of charge, and considereda civil right and a public service rather than a commodity’, the demand for taking up a university education is lower. Perhaps it’s worth considering how the commodification of something turns it into a thing to be acquired, regardless of whether one needs it for their preferred lifestyle or not.

This leads us to ask the question, what do we seek from tertiary education in Australia?

Following in the footsteps of the USA, going to university in Australia has become a lifestyle choice and a way to distinguish oneself in a competitive labour economy. Where high schools perhaps don’t do a sufficient job of directing students towards a suitable post-school pursuit, attending university becomes a cover-all path for ensuring one’s lifetime income can be maximised. However a huge proportion (one in five, according to The Australian) of students meander, eventually finding that neither university structure nor the content brings out their strengths. In Australia, there’s little useful consumer information for choosing a suitable university program, which isn’t to say there’s not a hard sell being done (anyone been to TSXPO?).

The argument for a nation’s prioritising of higher education is that highly skilled professionals (like healthcare specialists, lawyers, engineers) and an effective research industry are integral aspects of a strong economy.

But when universities exist to pump these out and exceed the demand for those skills, a large part of the money poured into higher education becomes redundant to that nation’s economy, and ultimately detrimental to its social security and provisions for equality.

The eventual shift back to a fee-based university system in Australia happened in 1989. During the economic surge of the 1980’s, university attendance became increasingly popular, and the government couldn’t afford to fund the quantity of students giving varsity life a go. An article in The Guardian reflects on how Germany has succeeded in its gradual abolition of university fees, noting that only 27% of school-leavers attend university because of the nation’s high value placed on other vocations and apprenticeships. Secondary school students choose whether to pursue a path in an academic education (called Gymnasium, which inevitably leads to university), or in one of two alternative directions (called Hauptschule and Realschule) that guide students directly towards employment in their chosen area. In this way, a white-collar job isn’t depicted to students as the ideal career, but just one of three options. What makes this system equitable is that all three types of secondary school are part of the same public system, so a family’s finances are not a fundamental part of the decision. The government’s commitment to high quality public schooling is steeped in a belief that this is essential to the unity and wellbeing of the nation. As a result, private schools are few, and exist mostly to offer alternative models like Montessori.

Can a free higher education system be compatible with an inequitable schooling system preceding it? Whitlam’s abolition of university tuition fees was found not to make a huge difference to the demographics enrolled in uni. The simple reason for this was that other social factors often prohibited working-class teenagers from finishing year 12, rendering them ineligible for university despite how financially accessible it was made to be. While higher education is important, it’s primary and secondary education that should be receiving full attention as the foundation of anything a student is going to benefit from through higher education.

In contrast to the Nordic system are the current circumstances in South Africa. Refuting the protests of students in South Africa, Professor of Higher Education at KwaZulu-Natal University, Dantew Teferra explains why it would be irresponsible of the government to give in to the students’ demands for a free higher education.

Teferra acknowledges the government’s university funding has increased massively since the early 2000’s, with the intention of investing in the nation’s highly skilled. However this has pushed the budget beyond its means, resulting in hiked fees. He argues that in a country ‘where massive social and economic inequalities abound’, areas like elementary and secondary education, public health, sanitation, water, housing, roads, telecommunications, and a social safety net are more fundamental to the basic equality of its citizens than higher education. A society is only as strong as the way it takes care of its most vulnerable.

Meanwhile, South African students demand higher education not at reduced fees, but without fees at all. This is simply not possible until South Africa deals with more fundamental issues to reduce poverty, so that the playing fields are levelled out.

Strengthening his argument that a free tertiary education is not a priority to South Africa as a nation, Teferra also touches on something that many Australians have probably experienced: not everyone thrives in the university environment. And why should they? We’re all individuals with different strengths, and different ways of thinking. University is, after all, another institution that stifles the intelligence of some, while enriching the abilities of others. There’s a need for individuals to be realistic about the opportunity cost inherent in undertaking higher education, and whether their time and money would be better invested in training for a different form of vocation — something they would enjoy or excel in.

Returning our focus to Australia, it was in 1989 that Labor established HECS, making a tertiary education accessible to people regardless of their financial situation pre-degree, with a ‘learn now, pay later’ schedule. In theory, this allows Australians to invest in a career as a highly skilled professional, with the guarantee that their secure future income will more than cover their debt.

It probably wasn’t forecasting the strange direction the labour economy has taken in the last decade or so. As a semi-recent graduate, I’m experiencing the imbalance between university curricula and the jobs people will pay you to do IRL (yes that’s right, outside of that glorious bubble you get to inhabit while you’re amounting HECS debt).

I graduated a fairly conventional uni program relative to many of my friends and family (and yet, securing a job is in no way straight forward). My sister finished a degree in Entertainment Industries, which combines aspects of film production, music production, events planning, business, and relevant areas of law with the intention of pumping out Producers. ‘Producer’ is a highly specific sector of professional, most of which can only find work in Los Angeles. Should there be an annual intake of 200 odd students for this degree, when the labour demand can’t possibly meet the graduate supply? I see this as irresponsible on the part of the university.

What I’m getting at, is that maybe the university industry in Australia is getting a little out of hand. Niche subject areas that once weren’t taught at uni progressed to being offered as minors, and then majors. Now, rather than just being able to dabble in the bizarre topic of your choice, you can, and are encouraged to do a whole, comprehensive degree in it. Good luck finding a job – not because they don’t exist, but because your university won’t be involved in integrating you into that industry.

It seems that in many industries, undertaking a hands-on apprenticeship of sorts would be a more relevant, effective, and cheaper way to pursue the career of your choice and match your skills to an area demanding them, allowing you to become financially self-sufficient. University just isn’t relevant to all professions and their ways of thinking.

The elephant in the room at this point is: why is a university education so damn expensive? The US system is comparable to the Australian system, and this system is the topic of Andrew Hacker’s investigative book Higher Education? In an interview with him, he comments on what he regards as poor distribution of the fees students are paying, focusing on college football and basketball as unnecessary and hugely draining of resources. He notes that universities will pour money into their sporting teams to redeem their lousy academics in cross-school comparisons.

Can it be said that Australian universities are also guilty of pouring money (tax-payer money which becomes a debt on the heads of students) into similarly pride-based resources? We’re arguing that education is our right, which can surely be boiled down to high-quality instruction. If we want a free education, it’s time we shave off the exorbitant overheads associated with university life.

As a communication student at university, I undertook a marketing research study, revealing the portion of uni funds poured into the upkeep of the grounds (yep, the sloping lawns etc). According to a marketing professor, the value of the campus grounds is in its ability to draw an enormous rate of highly-paying international students, for the Hogwarts-like and picturesque’ experience it offers. As far as I can see, this has no benefit to the domestic students trying to obtain skills to get a job after they’ve left those pretty gardens behind.

Understandably, the more prestigious-looking an institution is, the more money is required to maintain that appearance. Hacker discusses his investigation into the prestige of universities in USA versus the quality of the education (based on instruction given, not graduate prospects linked to brand recognition) being provided. He argues that students can get a better education at a second or third tier college (an American system for ranking institutions). He remarks that in the lesser-known colleges ‘the professors care, they spend time with the students, providing a good education because the professors aren’t expected to do research’. It’s this fund-drawing economy of research that drives the ranking system, and also detracts from student’s learning outcomes.

The question I’m asking is, would universities cost so much to run (whether that’s to tax-payers or to students up-front) if it weren’t for the inflated ideologies of what a university is?

Again leading the way, German university funding is mostly provided by state governments, on the proviso that it’s ‘invested exclusively into the improvement of the quality of studies and teaching’, as well as involving students in decisions surrounding fund distribution. While Australian Student Unions are alive and kicking, some more diversified feedback to inform where our money is spent wouldn’t hurt.

I believe to the tips of my toes that education is a right, and not something we should have to pay for. But I don’t think higher education is the crux of that argument, or the issue at all. Higher education is not the foundation that will separate the self-sufficient from those who depend on the government for support. Higher education will enrich your view of the world, and will (ideally) develop your critical thinking skills. But is it genuinely necessary for that career in media?

What shapes the ability for any given person to contribute something to society, to be proficient in managing an adult existence and able to make considered, conscious decisions is the education we’re all required to spend 12+ years getting. And the sum of all these people is the whole of any nation. It’s primary and secondary education that we Australian citizens should be getting up in arms about, not higher education. If we’re concerned about the inequality induced by high university fees, what about the system preceding that, the increasingly competitive private school sector? With each child that is sent to a private school instead of a public school, the public school system becomes more undermined and effectively abandoned by those who value education. This wouldn’t happen if more taxpayer money was invested in keeping the public school system maintained as something to be admired by other nations.

One of the few things that can be concluded from all of this, is that free higher education can only exist effectively in countries where equality is the concerted priority. For this to work in Australia, there needs to be attitudinal shifts surrounding what higher education is; removing a degree from the category of a commodity, to a public service that can be taken up at the opportunity cost of other vocational pursuits that provide equally secure lifestyles.

It’s the rat-race of meritocratic societies, the USA at the forefront, that drive the demand and the cost of a higher education up. This issue doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s an element in a suite of social provisions that exist in any given nation. To survive in a society where your quality of life, your access to fundamental human needs like healthcare and safety from crime, corresponds with your income and your assets, a degree becomes another asset to acquire, to keep yourself abreast of the race.

Do we want our university system to be just another industry, or an infrastructural backbone to a fair nation?