On Quality: You get what you pay for

This article was originally published in Advocate: Journal of the National Tertiary Education Union, where I now have a regular column, “Knowledge *is* the Economy, Stupid”.

Everybody’s talking about quality. We’ve had the review of the Australian Qualifications Framework, the establishment of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency and now the Government’s Higher Education Base Funding Review, which intends to benchmark course quality and student engagement. This latest review posits quality against cost in its very first dot point. If ‘you get what you pay for’, it would seem Australia has a problem given our lack of investment in higher education over the past 20 years.

The Base Funding Review echoes the higher education reforms in the 2009 Budget, which “stated the purpose as enabling Australia to participate fully in, and benefit from, the global knowledge economy.” All of this may well be laudable so long as we have a shared understanding of what is meant by ‘knowledge economy’. In a knowledge economy, human capital is highly valued, as people are the keepers of knowledge, and we are the connectors in an economy that is globalised and fluid. A knowledge economy should create critical, engaged, cosmopolitan citizens. It should value fairness and civility. If it is truly a knowledge economy, it must surely promote greater levels of participation in higher education as knowledge begets knowledge.

So how is Australia faring in its performance as a would be knowledge economy? Will our recent focus on quality improve our performance? Not so long as we continue to undervalue the human capital driving the economy, which we have systematically done for decades. While the current Government promises reform and has demonstrated some commitment by increasing higher education funding in the 2009 Budget (but not the 2010 Budget), it has a long way to go to recover from chronic underfunding by previous governments. Between 1995 and 2004, Australia was the only country in the OECD to have reduced public expenditure on higher education in real terms, leading to a situation where less than half of the sector’s funding is now public money. Private contributions are amongst the world’s highest, and we are now much closer to the USA than the UK in our reliance on student contributions (though the recent Browne Report there has signalled their intention to increase student contributions as well). While there are reasonable arguments for requiring some level of student contributions in a rapidly expanding higher education system – the most compelling being that one should contribute to a degree that virtually assures one a private benefit in the form of higher salary – there are equally compelling arguments to cap student fees and maintain public investment to ensure the broadest possible participation in a burgeoning knowledge economy.

On campuses, we all know what the consequences of decreased funding and increased reliance on student fees has meant. Australia’s staff to student ratios are now amongst the world’s highest, we perform poorly in international comparisons of student satisfaction surveys, more universities are offering voluntary redundancies than pay rises, and the sector has the second most casualised workforce in Australia. Remuneration, conditions and career pathways are woeful for casuals, many of whom are postgrads, the present and future leaders of Australia’s knowledge economy. Meanwhile, they live on stipends that sit at or below the poverty line, working far more hours than they’re paid to, as institutions consistently knock back requests for greater job security, recognition and participation in a collegial environment. Universities tell us they can’t afford to pay casuals more because of lack of government funding, as government tells us universities are not getting their priorities straight by investing in human capital.

Whose fault is this? Ultimately, we’re all to blame. Each time a casual academic accepts another exploitative contract, offered by a permanent staff member suffering workload issues that are exacerbated by a head of school who is ensuring the faculty dean will be happy with her bottom line, we get it wrong. And when the Australian public votes for a government that doesn’t invest seriously in the nation’s education and accepts that 25% of our educational dollar will fund private education, we get it wrong. And when peak bodies for the elite argue for a blurring of our qualifications that would allow doctorates to be situated on two of the 10 AQF levels, thereby damaging the integrity of the globally recognised PhD, they get it wrong. And when the Government continues to fund education in short, uncertain grant cycles and expects Australia to be a leader in research and innovation, they get it wrong. And when the Government makes grand plans to improve access to higher education for all, but fails to appropriately fund the increased numbers of students in real dollars that provide real lecturers and tutors and real desks in classrooms that are not overcrowded, they get it wrong.

The only way to fix our current broken system is to take all this talk of quality and cost and invest in people, for we are the knowledge economy.

No Need for New: Some principles for reducing consumption

As I read through our primary school’s newsletter the other day, I had the annual moment of excitement over the Smith Street Xmas appeal – ‘Yay! We can contribute!’ And then I had the annual moment of deflation when I read that all donations must be new. ‘Why?’ I moaned at my secondhand computer monitor, as I pictured the box of toys and clothes in perfectly good condition but no longer of interest to my children, sitting in the shed waiting for a trip to the Salvo’s.

I decided to check my response with the twitterz, expecting replies of ‘don’t poor people deserve new stuff?’ And the twitterz didn’t disappoint, but mercifully a number of the likely suspects joined a thoughtful discussion about the issues – consumerism, the lived experience of poverty and being ‘marked’ by secondhand goods, the practicalities of sorting through secondhand donations, the pleasures of the handmade gift, and questions of sustainability.

Why do people think we have a right to new things? Why do people make others feel bad if they don’t buy new things? I’m not such an ascetic as to suggest there’s no place for wanting something that is new to you, nor that in some cases new will simply make better sense than secondhand, whether for reasons of efficiency, practicality or some desired aesthetic. But having ‘new’ as your default position is, quite simply, wrong.

Logical fallacy #1: New Things Will Make Us Happy

It worries me that people think any of us ‘need’ or ‘deserve’ new stuff. In a civil society, you have a right to a roof over your head, access to clean water and nutritious food, good health and to be treated equally and fairly, and not much else.

There is clear research that shows that buying or having new (or more) things does not make us happy beyond an initial rush. In fact, the research indicates that the more affluent a society becomes, the less happy it is. Increasingly, we are being encouraged to spend our disposable income on experiences rather than things, as we work out that identities need grounding in memory, belonging and discovery, not the shirt on our back. I would add to this wisdom that many experiences cost nothing.

Logical fallacy #2: New Things Are ‘Nicer’ Than Secondhand

An unwanted gift on its way to the donation bin

So many new things are simply bright, cheap plastic – things that caused unhappiness in those who worked to make them, those who worked to deliver them, and those who must work to dispose of them. These things cause little more than a flash of ‘oh! Bright and shiny!’ in the children/adults who receive them, followed by the pallid realisation of how little joy can actually be found in such superficial ‘small pleasures’. These items fail the hedonistic principle at every stage – one should seek pleasure, but your pleasure should not be at the expense of another’s.

Obviously there are lovely things that are new. Handmade gifts can be a great pleasure for the maker, giver (who may or may not be the maker) and the recipient. Good quality items with an ethical production and distribution history can ensure you are comfortably and fashionably clothed, or perhaps using durable and effective cookware without breaching the pleasure principle for anyone (though many such things can also be found secondhand, obviously).

Bookshelf bought at auction, filled with old books inherited & bought.

We all have certain things we prefer to buy new – for me it’s shoes, which I buy very seldom, but always new. And who wouldn’t love to receive a brand new barbecue after two decades of the uneven heat and rust of hard rubbish versions? Last year we asked Stuart’s folks to withhold our birthday presents for the year and pile them into a Xmas present so we could cook entire meals outside for the next 30 years with fantastic results. We took years to decide a new one was a defensible choice and have not regretted it.

The pleasures of well-made old things.

Yet nearly all of the most treasured items in our house came to us secondhand. Bookshelves are a great example – some bought at auctions and some on eBay, some found in the hard rubbish – why would you buy shelves new? Our old hand beater is one of my favourite kitchen implements – my mother-in-law bought a new one a few years back and ended up vastly preferring a secondhand one we gave her. When our 50-year-old fridge didn’t survive our last move, eBay came through with an excellent secondhand one. I know loads of people who buy secondhand books, so what’s with the stigma on kids’ toys? If they’re in good condition, why not choose them over new, both for your own children and to give to charity? And nearly all the clothes I buy the children are from Savers.

Logical fallacy #3: Giving Secondhand Items to Charity is Patronising

Why would this be an unacceptable gift?

Some folks on Twitter suggested it was patronising to insist we give secondhand items to charity, arguing that ‘poor people deserve nice things too’. See Logical fallacy #s 1 & 2 for my response. However, obviously there are resonances of the First World having a First Class Freakout of What Happens when the Developing World catches up on Over-Consumption. Of course that would be patronising if it was my point, but what I’m suggesting is far more radical.

We all need to make secondhand our default position rather than seeing it as a deficit model. In fact, the default position should really be ‘why buy anything at all’, so that purchases are in fact only made when truly necessary or when one really desires to give a gift (birthdays being the most obvious example), and secondhand (or homemade) should be our first thought. New stuff should be a last resort for many consumables. How much waste could we avoid if we actually put a lot of thought into gifts, rather than marching into shopping centres like automatons who believe we might insult someone by giving them something that already has a history?


Now imagine that those who can afford new things regularly make the choice to buy secondhand. Suddenly those who can’t afford new things don’t stand out for buying old stuff, and nobody has to feel bad about giving a secondhand gift. Of course any gift you give should be clean and not broken, as should any donation to charity (though there’s another post in what some consider irreparable and others will resurrect – our society is so de-skilled and accustomed to planned obsolescence it’s shameful the things we throw out).

When I was interviewed for the Salvo’s Buy Nothing New Month article that ran in Woman’s Day in September, I was asked how much money we save by choosing secondhand over new, and my immediate response was that we don’t think of it as saving, we think those who shop for leisure or choose new over secondhand are wasting money. We need to reverse our thinking – instead of a world where refraining from shopping is some kind of hardship, we’d all be better off if we saw shopping as the hardship – something we occasionally just have to do when we’d rather be gardening. In terms of both social and environmental sustainability, it’s the right thing to do.

Democracy Matters

It will surely surprise none of you that I’ve been thinking a lot about democracy this year. There are a few particular reasons I’d like to share for my musings on democracy:

  1. I’m an elected President of a national organisation.
  2. I was deeply uncomfortable with the word ‘democracy’ before this year.
  3. I was involved in the establishment of a new peak body for international students in July.
  4. I have the honour of being an Ambassador for Aung San Suu Kyi through the Burma Campaign Australia.
  5. I’m an elected member of my children’s primary school council.

I’ve taken my roles on various councils very seriously these last five years – some might even call me a governance junkie (I do).

I understand democracy to mean a system where people are free to speak their views, insofar as they are not harmful to others, and to vote for elected representatives who will do their utmost to work in the direct interest of those they serve. When the constituency’s views are not well understood, democratically-elected representatives will do all in their power to survey the population to ensure they are truly aware of majority views. They will also ensure that minority views are well understood and their needs met.

Let me begin though with my second point – I was profoundly uncomfortable with using the word ‘democracy’ until this year. There is a fairly simple reason for this, which is that I was raised in the United States and swung heavily to the left during my undergraduate years at UCSD, whereupon I first heard Chomsky’s famous line that “America is the most brainwashed nation in the world”, as I protested the 1991 Gulf War. I won’t expound at length here on why I think democracy in America is broken, but essentially, I have thought so for a long time.

But stepping carefully away from that Big Conversation, let’s jump to this year. I’ve now been on a number of governance bodies, all related to the education sector, and so obviously believe in the system of democracy. I believe in the importance of voice, and of using it well. Having a voice is a privilege, and not one I take for granted. I’ve often been called a ‘squeaky wheel’, and it’s true, I usually get the oil. I’m quite proud of this fact, especially given I use my voice regularly and resoundingly to help others.

So in July there we were down in Hobart, having managed to get about 100 international students from all levels of post-secondary education to a three-day forum, which resulted in the establishment of the Council of International Students Australia (CISA). As the chair for the three days, I was constantly amazed and impressed as I led the democratic process. And I had the opportunity to reflect on the many students present who had never participated in democracy. It was exhilarating when the constitution was adopted, and inaugural office bearers elected.

Perhaps what heightened my awareness of the diversity of political experiences of those present at the International Students Forum was that in June I had the great honour to be invited by the Burma Campaign Australia to be an Ambassador for Aung San Suu Kyi. The primary role of the ambassadors has been to ‘use our liberty to promote Burma’s’ – to use our voices to bring attention to the plight of Aung San Suu Kyi and the Burmese people. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house detention on the 13th of November 2010, having spent 15 of the past 21 years imprisoned in her home by the military dictatorship. The elections held just days before her release saw the UNDP maintain power in a process widely regarded as rigged. Democracy does not exist in modern Burma, but Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), intend to keep fighting for it. And in my limited capacity, I’ll keep using my voice to raise awareness of Burma’s plight.

I’ve learned a great deal about democracy these last few years, and I’m now able to comfortably say I believe in it. Even in America, where the system is limping along, people have a voice, if they would only use it. A weak education system certainly does not enable a healthy democracy, and nor does a failure of the state to look after its people’s health or ensure they all have safe housing. And yet the right to speak and to vote still exists in real terms, which must surely give one hope for a brighter future. In Burma, such rights are at best limited and at worst subverted by unscrupulous so-called leaders.

Aung San Suu Kyi perhaps best summed up the people’s essential role in democracy during her speeches after release:

“Please don’t have the attitude that politics do not concern you. […] Everything is politics. Politics is not just coming here and supporting us. The housewife, who is cooking at home, also has something to do with politics because she is struggling to feed her family with the money she has. Struggling to send children to school is politics. Everything is politics. No one is free of politics. So saying that politics does not concern you and that you do not wish to be involved in politics is a lack of awareness of politics.”

Hear hear. Every purchase you do or don’t make, such as buying green power, is a political act.

I’ll close, predictably, with a reflection on the impact of so-called Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) on student voice. Some of you may have seen today’s article in The Australian about my organisation, the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) closing down our offices in Trades Hall due to lack of funds. The article highlights the decline of our members as their funding dried up, even in cases where universities have tried to support them by diverting money from teaching and learning funds.

I must reassure everyone that CAPA will continue to lobby at the national level, continuing our 30-year history of transforming national policy for Australia’s 270,000+ postgraduate students. We’ll just work from home. In fact, even with our limited financial resources, we’ve just released our Benchmarking Report on Minimum Resources for Postgraduate Study 2010.

There are many who supported the VSU legislation in 2005 based on the fallacy that the Amenities Fee only supported radical student politics and free beer. In fact, the fee paid for many essential services on campuses, as well as independent representation and advocacy.

Who cares whether there are student reps on university committees, some may wonder? Well, if coursework postgrads are worried about the quality of your degrees as class sizes increase, who would you like to voice that concern? Perhaps you’re a research student with supervisor woes and no office space? In more dire circumstances, maybe your supervisor is wrongfully trying to claim your IP?

Student representatives canvass a plethora of issues at committees regularly and relentlessly, leading to significant improvements in policy and practice. Advocates working for student associations identify themes in their casework and alert representatives to issues that are not unique, so that they may lobby for change across the system. Where they are not well resourced and not able to work together, it’s difficult to notice themes, let alone take them to central committees. On far too many of Australia’s university campuses five years into life with VSU, there are student organisations barely surviving and unable to maintain a strong voice as their funding has disappeared.

Most of those campuses without independent postgraduate representation have lost their link to CAPA, the peak body, meaning their voices are disappearing at the federal level. Those who have lost their postgrad associations include members of the Go8 – it’s not just small and regional universities who are suffering. (For those interested, you can read all of our submissions to Government on the VSU and current SSAF bill.)

CAPA is aware of instances of postgrad associations being overtly threatened with a withdrawal of funding and/or disbanded by universities because they didn’t like what the student reps were saying about their institution. A return of the Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF), with a proviso that some of the fee be used to directly support independent representation and advocacy on a per head distribution between undergrads and postgrads, would ensure that such unethical and undemocratic behaviour could not occur.

Again, to quote Aung San Suu Kyi on the day after her release, “Accepting that there can be a difference of opinion is a democratic principle.