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.