Thursday, December 18, 2008

Students are not cogs in a machine

The Bradley review into Australian Higher Education does not talk enough about students.  The word "student" appears many times, but students as living, breathing individuals with hopes and ambitions of their own do not appear.  Rather, the unit of analysis is the education system, or the government, and sometimes a higher-education provider.  Imagine a corporation that treated customers with such disdain, it would soon be in need of a bail-out.

To be fair, the terms of reference hobble the review.  They refer to productivity gains, and long-run growth, and labour-market needs, and so on.  Of course, government is interested in this sort of thing.

Nonetheless, this dehumanizing attitude that treats students as cogs in a machine permeates education policy.  Rather than a place where a tradition of learning is preserved and extended, Australian governments have long viewed universities as tools of economic and social manipulation.  Small wonder they do not perform as expected.

There is much to dislike about the Bradley report, but it does propose a voucher-type system whereby funding will follow students.  It also proposes that universities be allowed to enrol as many students as they choose in particular courses.  These fundamental reforms should be adopted -- yet Bradley does not go far enough.  The report proposes a price cap on what universities can charge students.  It explicitly states there is no general case for further educational investment by increasing the private, student contribution.  Yet there seems to be no logical argument why this is the case, indeed Bradley canvasses several arguments in favour of there being no cap.  Every businessman knows that price controls lead to inefficiencies and distortions, yet academics clamour for them.

Other aspects of the Bradley report are less commendable.  Ultimately it has a producer-focus to its recommendations.  It proposes greater barriers to entry into the university market;  indeed if some of the recommendations about teaching and research linkages were implemented, existing universities might lose status.  Too much emphasis is given to additional government funding -- in some respects it seems to call for open cheque-book financing of students and universities.  It urges more micro-management of universities and greater centralisation of control over the education system.

Ultimately, that is the greatest flaw in the review.  A demand-driven education system would not need the type of bureaucratic controls Bradley envisages.  Bradley has been very brave in calling for a voucher-type system.  The problem facing universities is that government is likely to accept the recommendations for more red tape but perhaps not provide the additional funding.


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