Why copy US university system? It’s the world’s worst

By October 22, 2014Education, Media, Print
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Australia has one of the highest equity, best performing Tertiary education systems in the world.  Now the government wants to toss that model in the bin and copy a system which is comprehensively failing to deliver benefits for its students, employers or taxpayers.  Please tell me we aren’t about to destroy our higher education system because our Education Minister really, really likes Americans.

Just like taxpayers in every developed country, Australian taxpayers help fund higher education with direct payments to Universities and low interest loans to students.  We do that because the benefits to the country in having highly educated people generally outweigh the costs.  And in Australia we get especially good value for money.  We are one of only 5 OECD countries where public benefits (higher taxes and reduced welfare) are higher than the costs to the taxpayer.

When it comes to taxpayer contributions to higher education, Australia is the the 7th cheapest country in the OECD (just ahead of Columbia, the US, Japan, the UK, Korea and Chile). Here taxpayer funds cover just 45.6% of the cost of Tertiary education, way below the OECD average of 69.2%.

We may be cheap but our higher educators are kicking some pretty serious goals when it comes to the outcomes that matter.  Our graduates have the 5th best literacy proficiency in the OECD (on par with the best in the world, Japan, the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden).  We’re only 12th best in numeracy, but that is still well above the average for the OECD.

Even when it comes to research, our bargain basement Universities are up with the big spenders. We are second only to Sweden in the percentage of GDP devoted to University R&D.   And we are spending proportionately three times as much as our neighbours in the cheap seats, Chile.

We manage all of that with one of the most accessible and equitable university sectors on the planet.  Here, 17% of school leavers entering Higher Education are from the lowest quartile of the population. And that rate has been steadily climbing, up from 15.7% in 2006.  In the US, the trend is very much in the opposite direction, dropping from 12% in 1970 to just 7% now.

We have a cheap-as-chips, high performing tertiary education system, but now the government wants to make us even cheaper by shaving a fifth ($1.7 billion a year) off the taxpayer contribution.  The only way to do that and still have a higher education system is to ask the students to contribute even more.

If the funding cuts were the only changes being proposed then we would justifiably fret about whether taxpayers really would get monkeys if we pay (less) peanuts.  Yes, it would cost the individual more to get the education they want and yes, that may impact on the number of people likely to want to do the things Australia needed them to do. And yes that may result in lower tax collections, more debt and more welfare.

But none of it would be immediately catastrophic.  And any damage could be easily reversed if it started to look ugly.  If only the same could be said for the other little change the Minister for Education wants to make.

As a bit of a sweetener for the G8 (Group of Eight largest universities in the country), the Education Minister has decided to allow tertiary institutions to charge whatever they like and the government will still pick up its part of the bill.  And it’s worked. Instead of G8 Vice-Chancellors baying for the Minister’s blood over the huge cuts, they are thinking of electing him Pope (or something).

The Minister has done this because he wants our University system to be market driven just like the US.  He feels that is the only way to get our Universities in the top 100 in the world (as determined by just about everything but the quality of the students they produce).  And if that’s the goal then copying the US is probably as good a way as any of doing it.  It’s just a pity it will destroy Australia’s high equity, high student outcome, tertiary education system in the process.

Just like the privatised US Health system the privatised US higher education system is a case study in market failure.  Even though US citizens and taxpayers spend more on universities than any other country, the US comes in 15th out of 34 OECD countries when it comes to educational attainment.

It is a system divided into outrageously expensive premium universities (which is the prize our G8 are eyeing off) and a large swath of cheap back to basics institutions.  Neither the expensive few, nor the rest, produce desirable outcomes for the student population.

American college graduate academic performance is abysmal and sliding fast.  An Australian graduate is almost twice as likely to get a job as their US counterpart. But it will personally cost the US graduate 4 times as much and the US taxpayer 50% more.

This is what happens when you destroy equity in an education system.  Do we really want to copy that?

First published in The Courier Mail

Image courtesy of patpitchaya at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Stephen Downs says:

    I agree with everything David says here. I also belive that American Education System is a shining example of equitable efficiency compared to the American Health Care System

  • Jack Thompson says:

    The Americans aren’t doing too bad. Can we imagine a world without America? It would be a scary place…

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