Why doesn’t Australia value higher education?

Australia consistently ranks within the top twenty richest countries in the world. Nonetheless, our politicians’ rhetoric around tertiary education insists that we simply can’t give more. Although scaled back from its 2014 proposal for full fee-deregulation, the government’s continued attack on higher education funding demonstrates its clear undervaluing of education; it is reducing it simply to monetary terms. It shows a gross underappreciation of the broader outcomes of education and the role that education plays in democracies, and in helping individuals thrive. Many first-world countries have tertiary education systems that are either entirely free, or have marginal fees. Why can’t we?

In Australia, our international points of comparison tend to be the US and England. Compared to these countries, our system doesn’t look half bad. Unlike in the US, students in Australia are generally not required to pay fees up front, and for many prospective students bachelor’s degrees still feel within reach, with fees not yet reaching the near the £9000 per year that students in England pay. However we have to seriously question whether these are the two international models we should be comparing our educational system to.

In many European countries, tertiary education is completely free. This includes Slovenia, Estonia and Turkey: places with far fewer financial resources than Australia. If courses aren’t entirely free, then fees for studying in countries like Spain, France, and Belgium are menial, costing locals a few hundred dollars per year. And while some subsidised education systems might be limited to citizens, Germany, Norway, and Iceland offer free tertiary education to everyone, residents and foreigners alike. Because of this many students, like myself, leave their home countries to be educated in Europe.

Wanting to pursue a postgraduate course, but reluctant to take on over $20,000 in debt, when I heard that university in Germany was free, my disbelief was quickly followed by a hasty application. To be clear, I’m not German. I don’t have German family. I don’t have a European passport. And I didn’t speak a word of German before arriving in the country. Yet in Germany I have been able to obtain a world-class postgraduate degree free of charge while benefitting from hugely discounted public transport and health insurance. The universities here are neither overrun nor subpar. In fact, there’s little difference between university here and Australian universities. And this free education is being offered in a country that, like the majority of the countries listed above, has a lower gross domestic product (GDP) per capita than Australia.

As neither politician nor economist, I won’t claim to have mastered the intricacies of putting together a federal budget. What is obvious, however, is that a budget reflects our attitudes: towards business, towards education, and how we want to build our future.

These European countries with free higher education are not silly. They haven’t overlooked a potential cash cow; they simply value education in a way that Australia does not. Wilhelm von Humboldt, who continues to be among the most influential European thinkers on education, believed that an education should not be reduced simply to a means of getting a job, but should be promoted as a path towards general development; crucial for well-rounded and informed citizens. Education should not be a financial transaction, but a means to give citizens space to grow as individuals, to cultivate possibilities for their own improvement.

Students in Europe are assisted to pursue higher education for longer time periods than in Australia, and are encouraged to take time off their studies to do internships, the overwhelming amount of which are paid. On top of this, most European countries take part in an exchange program called ERASMUS, which offers financial support to students who take a semester to study abroad.

In English-speaking countries, students tend to graduate younger than their European counterparts. The potential reason for this is noted in a recent study of OECD countries, that points out that educational systems that encourage students to graduate sooner show a primary focus on increasing the labour force as quickly and efficiently as possible. In other words, this trend shows a tendency to treat tertiary education as a for-profit machine geared towards improving the economy, rather than students themselves. While part of the allure of going to university is definitely to enhance job prospects, it is an obvious folly to level this as the only reason to value education.

European students are also far more likely to proceed with postgraduate studies. In fact, the report Education at a Glance showed that just six per cent of adults in Australia have master’s degrees. This is almost half of the OECD average of eleven per cent. This is unsurprising given the fact that, according to the same report, Australia’s master’s degrees are eighty-five per cent more expensive than they were a decade ago, and are second only to the US in terms of overall expense. Deemed ‘nonessential’ education by the government, postgraduate degrees are largely unsubsidised and, as was my case, typically cost around $20,000 for a one-year course. While postgraduate degrees may be nonessential education for finding a job, they’re essential for achieving a properly developed understanding in any field. Few would argue that a three-year bachelor course is enough time for this.

It is not only postgraduate degrees that are following this trajectory, but all levels of tertiary education. The same report shows that on average, bachelor’s degrees in Australia are twenty per cent more expensive than they were a decade ago, and are the fifth most expensive amongst all OECD countries. The natural result of this is that the vast majority of graduates in Australia are in significant debt. And for many who have studied in fields such as law or arts, this burden can be serious and overwhelming.

TAFEs, another essential component of higher education, have been following an even more alarming trend. In Western Australia, fees for some TAFE courses have tripled in the past five years, while courses in NSW are reported to have quadrupled. Unsurprisingly, these fee increases have caused a significant drop in enrolments and many TAFEs have been hallowed by the combination of funding cuts and fewer students.

Australia in fact spends more than the OECD average on tertiary education, but as Kelsey Munro of the Sydney Morning Herald points out, ‘this is largely due to our investment in research which helps drive our universities’ showings in the global rankings and hence attract international students.’ Research is, of course, an important facet of universities’ output, but when one of the primary motivations for funding our educational institutions is to entice foreign students, who in turn have to pay higher fees, it becomes clear that in Australia the economy of tertiary education takes precedence over actually educating. Our education model has lost sight of what’s important.

Education is not a business. Yet until we are able to take it outside of the framework of the economy, we won’t be able to defend it from relentless budget cuts. To treat tertiary education only as money-making machine is to fail to recognise its most powerful potential: to create a better future for people.

Free or low-cost higher education is a reality in most European countries and in many others worldwide. It is not an unfeasible pipe dream, nor a gross mismanagement of taxpayers’ money. It’s something that developed countries should be able to provide for their citizens. Tertiary education should not just be a place to spit out a workforce as quickly and efficiently as possible, but a place for people to develop, to discover, and to grow into the best versions of themselves. Its value is intrinsic.

Bella Peacock

Bella Peacock is a freelance writer based in Berlin. She is currently writing a thesis in sex-play politics at the Freie Universitaet, Berlin. Her work has been published in: Future Perfect, FilmInk Magazine, Reportage Online, at the Festival Magazine, FU Review: Literary Journal, U:Mag.

More by Bella Peacock ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Agree with most of what you’ve said. The price of higher education is outrageous.

    I don’t think it should be free to international students – we must remember that those who can afford to go to Australian universities are mostly the absolute bourgeois elite of their countries.

    Also, I think the lack of Australians with postgraduate degrees is a good thing! I think it kind of reflects an egalitarian streak…

    You don’t need a degree for most jobs, to be honest. And certainly not a postgrad.

    In many countries people get postgrad degrees to placate their status anxiety or to actually be competitive in a job market where an undergrad degree is basically considered essential to get any sort of job above minimum wage.

    I’m glad Australia isn’t like that.

    1. If international students in Oz are relatively privileged, surely that’s all the more reason to make education free to all comers?

      1. “Education is not a business. Yet until we are able to take it outside of the framework of the economy, we won’t be able to defend it from relentless budget cuts. To treat tertiary education only as money-making machine is to fail to recognise its most powerful potential: to create a better future for people.”

        Thank you for your article. I agree with what you have to say here.

        Can I please add that I teach in international education and as bad as a student’s work can get, they rarely fail. Why?

        Language schools are affiliated or partnered with universities or higher education institutes, providing direct entry into degree programs.  Students pay university and language course fees upfront.  

        And teachers face a lot of pressure from management (and the students themselves) to give passing grades.  Indeed, teachers fear having a complaint made against them by a student because they can lose their job over it.  Most teachers realise that the best path is the path of least resistance (who doesn’t want to keep their job?).  

        So plagiarism (and cheating) is often widespread and not addressed.  Disciplinary action is hardly taken.  Teachers may try to fight against such things in the name of lifting standards and academic integrity, but ultimately they’re powerless and will receive little support from management. After all, student fees pay teacher’s wages.  The retail slogan of ‘the customer is always right’ is being used more and more as justification to side with the student, not the teacher.  The student has to get what he or she paid for, and that’s an Australian university education.

        I recently attended a PD session at work and was amazed to see a teacher’s role in the classroom defined as ‘customer service’. Yes, that’s right, customer service! Money is being put ahead of standards and academic integrity. Universities are, unfortunately, big businesses. I can only see that getting worse, and worse.

      2. The fact is, those that can even speak English (and therefore study at an Australian Uni) in the first place in poorer, non-English speaking countries are the top of the pile.

        It requires a good public education system, and more likely, years of private extra-curricular classes.
        Making university degrees free for international students in Australia will do nothing to change the above.

  2. Jacks, respectfully, I think you may have missed the point.

    1. It is true that most international *undergraduate* students (exceptions: scholarships, exchange programs) tend to come from wealth. This, however, does not change the fact that, if fees were to be subsidised by whatever degree, the demographic would (in theory) shift toward a more balanced collection of students. In other words, I don’t believe that this “they are rich, so make them pay more” is a sound rationale because if you didn’t make them pay as much, the majority of foreign students coming to Aus.. wouldn’t be that rich. One feeds the other, and it could also limit the academic potential of the these universities. Regardless, I don’t see the equity in charging a particular demographic of students exorbitant prices (and upfront) for the same services solely on the assumption that they can better afford it. It is ignorant, ill-informed, and frankly, discriminatory. Your reasoning, generally speaking, would apply to taxation policy – not so much to the provision of services themselves. It is also not entirely honest to use post-grad/research rankings as a tool to coax international students into funding Australian universities through contractual undergraduate commitments – particularly when this money goes right back into the same machine rather than toward subsidising the cost of post-grad programs (for both domestic and international students). I say “contractual” because their visas are granted specifically on the basis that they agree to return home upon completion of their studies in Australia. This means not only that Australian educational policies have set a high price-floor that restricts the influx of foreign students to those from backgrounds of relative privilege while refusing access to students of potentially greater academic/social/cultural ability and awareness, they have also redirected the bulk of this money away from the immediate interests of domestic students. The nerve!

    2. I agree that post-grad degrees are often overkill, and that students should not feel pressured to pursue this (in any case, I don’t believe the latter is a systemic issue anywhere in the world). However, to actively discourage students from doing so by way of prohibitive policy and labour-intensive economics is also not healthy IMO. As I understood it, the general themes in this article are that (A) education in Australia is treated as more of a business than a public service, (B) that students are treated as cash cows, and (C) that policy is designed in a manner that serves existing business rather than human development. I agree with all of this, and believe that this structure will probably lead to the damage and depression of future generations.

    The relative pressure for students to work and serve the economy ASAP rather than to grow as people reflects a short-sighted and money-hungry driver behind Australian politics that I think we are all quite aware of. Perhaps this is more of a philosophical debate than one of economics.

  3. George, those three points you mentioned are definitely the key aspects of the article. I by no means believe that postgraduate courses are necessary for most people, but, like you said, I also don’t believe the price of such courses should be prohibitive. For some people, postgraduate degrees will allow them to specialise in a way that bachelor’s degrees simply cannot offer. They also hold potential for people to specialise in two areas, opening up more interesting cross-disciplinarian approaches.

    Gabriel, you bring up a really interesting point! The issue with fees=passin is crazy because it is a double edge sword. Ultimately, if we don’t uphold the integrity of our universities (ie. high standards of eduction) then less international students will be attracted to come here. It is only because the Australian education system is recognised worldwide that so many students are willing to pay more for degrees here. It is absurd and definitely another crucial issue that results from Australia treating tertiary education as a business rather than a space for development.

    1. Yes Bella. When I was in China you wouldn’t believe the ‘blanket bombing’ of advertising (pardon the expression) done by certain Australian universities. This is how ‘recruitment’ is done. University representatives (I wasn’t one, but I was part of a delegation and saw first-hand) conduct major conventions and sessions in foreign countries for nothing other than drumming up business. The sell the brand, in other words. I’ve seen it. And the brand is one largely based on the image projected through very expensive advertising. That’s where University money is going.

  4. Having free higher education changes the conversation. Education can be thought of as a human right. They are saying that they value the people so much that they want them to have every opportunity to pursue the highest of educational opportunities, and self-development.
    Thanks for this article!

  5. I agree that it should be cheaper than it is now, but what are the reasons that you think it should be free for international students?

    No-one has addressed my earlier point that, in the vast majority of cases, to learn English in a non-English speaking country requires inherited wealth.

    Also, George, you say that it is “contractual” as international students are required to return home straight after study. This is actually not the case for the vast majority of undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.

    If you complete 2 years or more of an undergrad or postgrad degree in Australia you qualify for a 2 year graduate post-study work visa. This is a really quite generous offer that allows students to earn high Australian wages and, potentially, apply for PR or skilled migration.

    1. Hi Jacks,you’re right about the post-study work visa. This wasn’t the case when I first moved to Australia in 2011; I assumed it hadn’t changed.

      I agree, education shouldn’t have to be free for international student. Just cheaper, within reason.

      Also as a well-travelled Indian, I think the ‘inherited wealth is a prerequisite to learn English in non (predominantly) English speaking countries” point is debatable – particularly for the countries most international students come from.

  6. It is ideologically inconsistent to advocate for a “tax the rich” policy and then offer free university education to international students whose countries do not reciprocate that.

    1. Of course international students that come to study here are, from what I have seen, very well off. Their education is paid for by their family, so is their accommodation, and so on. They are part of the elite of their country. It doesn’t take long to see how spoilt they are, demanding that they pass because all the money has been paid. Free education here in Australia for international students? Who’d think of such a thing. What a stupid idea. What other export commodity should then also be free?

      1. But hey I’d be for free education for refugees or asylum seekers as well as Australian Citizens. Why not a free university education for someone who is poor and lives in, say, Myanmar? Why not education as something just gives someone a damn break in life? Why not that?

  7. I actually don’t think tertiary education for international students should be free either.

    It feels a bit tenuous for me to argue that, however, as I am personally benefitting from Germany’s policy of free educations for foreigners and Germans alike. I do, however, think that Germany’s policy is different for two crucial reasons. Firstly, very few people (who are not citizens) speak German, and therefore in order to participate in courses here it takes a dedicated few years before most people can even begin. In practice, this means that far far less people even apply to university here. English, on the other hand, is the most widely spoken second language in the world, and so the language hurdle (while still undoubtedly a hurdle) is far less substantial in English.
    And while I agree that speaking English often correlates with wealth, this is not always the case. Take the Philippines for instance. Many people in the Philippines are not wealthy and have incredible English literacy rates.
    Yet regardless of whether the speakers and rich or poor, the fact is there are simply more people in the world comfortable with speaking English than German.

    The second reason Germany offers free tertiary education for foreigners is that, unlike Australia, the universities here are still trying to build their international reputation. I imagine that once Germany’s universities become more prominent and recognised worldwide, fees will be introduced for non-citizens.

    Australia’s university system is definitely an international affair, but I think it would be wise to first focus on providing the best opportunities for citizens, before altering the system for international students.

    1. I’d agree with you regarding the academic standards at Australian uni’s. In general, these have declined substantially over the past decade or two.
      In some subjects at one major uni in NSW, course content has been simplified to be more manageable for students with lower English language skills. This is solely because the university needs to attract full- fee paying overseas students, but means that local students drop out at higher rates because they’re dissatisfied with the ‘dumbed down’ content. Foreign students continue to enrol in significant numbers, not because the degree is now any good (it isn’t) but because they stand a chance of being accepted – and passing – despite having relatively low levels of English.
      I’d also support Jacks comments regarding the pathway from student visa to permanent residency. This is widely recognised and, in fact, touted as by migration agents who recommend careful selection of courses to maximise the options for PR for the student.
      For instance;
      Australian tertiary education could be world-leading but will only Comrie to decline until its role as revenue generator / visa pathway to residency is changed.

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