Over the past 30 years, Australian governments have attempted to provide everyone with the right to a tertiary education. This is bad policy. So is the policy direction the Coalition is attempting to steer us toward: everyone should attend university but on the proviso that as many of them as possible pay as much as possible for the privilege.
But many people only study to get a job - not to get an education. They've been told it's their only path to employment. But in a world in which "educated" people end up processing credit card applications at one of the banks, many feel university is a waste of time. Truth be told, it is - a degree isn't necessary for administrative work. You also don't make all that much money performing such roles - perhaps a trade would be a better option.
Moreover, education-for-all has undermined Australia's egalitarian values. Once a person has a degree and wears a tie to work, as opposed to overalls and Blundstones, they think of themselves as professionals, not workers. They have careers, not jobs. They don't join unions and thus don't apply wage pressure to their employers. Instead, they attend annual reviews as individuals where the discourse is friendly and diplomatic no matter what the content. But the outcome is always the same - pay rises that simply reflect CPI, not individual ability, not the company's performance, not an appreciation for the group as whole. These people then feel as though they're successful irrespective of their earnings, residential address, or home ownership status. Indeed, they don't identify as working-class but as middle-class. "False consciousness" springs to mind.
Education-for-all eliminates class.
Those who don't have a passion for learning could reasonably be removed from the system by simply altering society's perception of what an education actually does for one's employment (and earning) prospects. Such a move would be beneficial for all.
A more correct policy would reflect the following sentiment: everyone should be provided with the opportunity to attend university. How?
First, the primary and secondary education systems need to be improved. Mediocrity is taught at an early age. Nobody is held back in school these days. It's not that teachers don't detect learning difficulties in their students but that they have little power to rectify such problems - high class numbers, ever-growing curriculum demands, and the suggestion that the teacher is incompetent if a student can't read as well as he or she should be able to, mean that kids slip through the system.
Reduce the pressures on teachers. Do away with the myth that every student is equally capable. Nurture their learning problems so they don't reach the point of holding a degree but are still unable to spell. Teach the essentials - literacy and comprehension, mathematics, IT skills, organisational skills, the importance of physical fitness, and the joys of artistic expression. Let their future employers teach them how to use a vertical drill.
Second, cease the private school bias. Middle-class people make sacrifices so their children can attend private schools. They think this gives them an edge when it comes to gaining places in prestigious courses. It does. They get all the things I outlined in the previous paragraph. And they get spoon-fed by their teachers. So comparing students who attend private schools with those who attend public schools is like apples and oranges - but that's how we compare students when we allocate university places. Ultimately, private schools "produce" better results; people send their kids to private school; and private schools dominate elite university faculties. Money prevails.
But why aren't Melbourne University Law students marked against Monash University and Deakin University Law students? Because universities recognise that this makes no sense. They also recognise, by their use of the bell curve, that in any group of people, everyone has different capabilities. In the secondary system, though, no-one who attends a private school is really at the bottom of the queue because the bottom cohort of students will probably attend the same university as their high-achieving friend at the top.
Here's a suggestion: irrespective of which school one attends, only the top, say, 15 per cent (this number is completely arbitrary) move on to university. The top 15 per cent of Melbourne Grammar students; the top 15 percent of Cranbourne Secondary College students. The incentive to send students to private schools dissipates, demand for public school funding increases, and people who can't really afford to send their children to elite schools in the first place get to put the money back in their pockets - and maybe even into, say, superannuation.
Opportunity is no longer concentrated but is spread across the board. And those who miss out on a university place go and do that which they would likely do after completing a degree - assume a place in a call centre. But at least they won't have been lulled into a false consciousness.
And if, as a society, this idea were to work as I think it could, then we'd be really lucky because you might find that instead of accepting second-rate administrative jobs, people might turn their attention to things they're really passionate about. Or at least something they like doing. Or they might work hard in order to earn a university place. Australia might actually become a site for excellence, the type of excellence only passionate, hard-working people are able to attain. Mediocrity will become a thing of the past - not only in higher education, but in society.