Australian families are spending more on education than ever – but what are they getting for their money? A crash course in left-wing political indoctrination, heaps of parties, but not much in the way of real learning, says SAMANTHA HO
Once upon a time when children finished school, their families could wish them well and send them on their way. Their offspring might have decided to pursue a career in surveying, nursing, soldiering, chorus dancing, boiler-making, or home-making. But whatever well-trodden path the children chose, the majority of parents from thirty-odd years ago could look forward to having some privacy again as a couple. This was just as true for more well-to-do parents, whose release from their young came when their young intelligentsia moved out to go
to university.
Happy to escape the suburbs, Australia’s new undergraduates would collect a bunch of milk crates for furnishings and set up a share house with other students. Then they would start a band, have pregnancy scares, and read Marx (Karl, not Groucho) at bus stops while smoking French cigarettes. Quite often, the university students of old would also concentrate on confounding the working public via wacky gags like handing out the Pill to nuns while playing double bass clad only in Marx noses (Groucho this time). Then, of course, they graduated to become barristers, diplomats, doctors, politicians, and academics, building wonderful wine cellars, donating a wing or two to their old high schools, and holidaying in the south of France. Their path through university was aided by the scholarships and living allowances that the Commonwealth used to hand out to a majority of students.
Such taxpayer-funded generosity was quite forthcoming thirty years ago when tertiary institutions were no-fee finishing schools for the well-to-do, and enrolled less than a third of the more than 900,000 students who cram today’s campuses. But like all good parties, that one wasn’t meant to last, and when the Hawke Government expanded a university education into a mass market phenomenon in the late 1980s, fees appeared and started rising, as did heavy restrictions on student assistance schemes. The proportion of students receiving Commonwealth scholarships and other benefits fell from about two thirds thirty years ago to less than thirty per cent now.

The results of this shift might please armchair anthropologists given to admiring the social cohesion of countries where nine or ten generations of a single family customarily live under the one roof. Others weep.
Do you have a university student in your household? Whether you are helping with the fees or simply covering other expenses, tertiary study these days eats money. One way or another you’re probably paying through the nose for the privilege of helping your young know-it-all join the ever-expanding ranks of the university educated.
Even a place subsidised by the government under what was known as the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (now it’s called Commonwealth-supported) can cost about $8,000 a year. Full-fee places for students who fall a mark or two short of the entry cut-off can be billed at more than $20,000 per year.
Then there’s all the textbooks, photocopying, stationery, SMS bills, food and fun costs, and compulsory student union fees.
The non-tuition costs of university life quickly drain the wallet with many textbooks small-run, high-price editions and annual compulsory union fees of up to $590. Not to mention another $7,000 or so each year in rent for those lucky or resourceful students who move to a share house in defiance of this age of “adultescence” – the epidemic of children living with their parents into their twenties and even thirties. And for parents whose kids live at home, the situation is even worse.
So is all this worth the thousands you and the students pay, and the billions the government pours in courtesy of your taxes?
thinker1 copy.jpgWhen the government recently admitted a drastic shortage of skilled labour and said that Australia might have to admit another 20,000 foreign tradespeople to keep industry and the economy alive, they certainly weren’t talking about any urgent need for more batches of “social researchers”, “advocates”, or “change agents” – all graduate career paths listed in this year’s NSW universities admissions guide.
No, they were talking about graduates with functional and constructive skills – engineers, health professionals, and people who can actually do stuff like build ships, rather than merely interpreting the changing role of seamen in representations of queer identity.
Of course, the trades are not for the squeamish – wielding welders can be a good deal more hazardous to one’s health than waving about a sociology text.
Physically, at least. For surely it can’t be good for the soul to spend years indulging in intellectual tomfoolery – which is the only way to describe an awful lot of what goes on in Australia’s tertiary classrooms.
Some of the more offensive variety are disguised amongst what would seem to be fairly straightforward but growing vocational areas, like communications. That’s journalism, public relations, or marketing right? Wrong.
Have a look at the communications offerings at one of Australia’s more cutting-edge institutions, the University of Technology, Sydney. Here we find the wonderful Bachelor of Communications (social inquiry), which gives whiners the opportunity to feel right at home in what used to be the realm of tough, critical thinking. But then again, why master the hard-won secrets of engineering or physics when you can indulge in the opinion-page pleasing zone “where social theory, research and communication converge. It offers … [students] the skills to participate effectively in social change.”
One could be forgiven for thinking that social change was what pioneering doctors, lawyers or engineers did in bringing their skills to the outback or to the downtrodden, or what urban planners could do by ditching the Macquarie Fields/Redfern-style ghetto model of public housing.
But no, social change is a discrete topic in today’s universities.
The “professional subjects” for budding social changers include “social change, Australian history and politics, belief systems, cultural studies, globalisation, [and] gender and diversity.” (A prize for the reader who can guess which way this all leans in terms of its ideological underpinnings.)
And while we’re at UTS, let’s take a look at some of the traditional courses. How about nursing, an area where the Federal Government just gave UTS a stack more places to make up for the University of Sydney’s decision to phase out of undergraduate nursing.
In between learning to care for people, budding nurses have the opportunity to study Organisational Relationships, where they learn about “critical issues of health care delivery … with particular emphasis on the effects of power, policy and politics”.
Do you have any young kids, or are you planning some? Well, let’s take a look at what our next generation of teachers are learning.
With Australia crying out for more skilled, literate and numerate workers who aren’t snobs about doing hard yakka, what better subject for our teachers could there be than UTS’s Sociology of Education, where topics include “the direction of social change and the nature of globalisation”. No wonder so few people were surprised when Wayne Sawyer, president of the NSW English Teachers Association, announced that he thought his profession wasn’t doing its job if students kept graduating and voting for the wrong guy, i.e., Howard.
In an era crying out for Realpolitik, is it any wonder the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s latest online graduate recruiting drive features a trainee whose background is not in the humanities, but in the logic-heavy disciplines of mathematics and computer science? Plus the trainee, Axel, has actually learnt foreign languages instead of doing vacuous “cultural studies”.
lawn1 copy.jpg
But then again, if DFAT have any questions about how the world works, they only need to pick up the phone to the student unions, who operate on budgets totalling hundreds of millions of dollars nationally, and who use their funding to develop deeply wise policies and positions on everything. With membership of student unions compulsory in every state except Western Australia, chances are the students in your household have been forced to give money to a small clique of delusional ratbags who would die off the moment that unionism becomes voluntary.
First cab off the rank could be the National Union of Students (NUS), an um- brella organisation that collects millions of dollars each year from its affiliate campuses.
The NUS spends up big on get-togethers where it thrashes out wildly entertaining “platforms”, such as a gem from 2001 when the NUS expressed its outrage that the US and its allies attacked the Taliban and al Qa’ida, in a “racist war of terror”. In a dastardly twist, the evil US’s attack on Islam’s theocratic fascists in Afghanistan “perpetuates women’s and queer oppression”.
Cool, huh?
The Taliban executed homosexuals by collapsing walls on them and barred women from attending school, but somehow it all turns into a Western plot, and the NUS called on “the US government and its ally, Australia, to withdraw troops and military operations”. It would be hilarious if this was some nutter’s blog instead of a multimillion dollar organisation funded by hundreds of thousands of university students.
The totalitarian impulse has bled out of much of Western society since the end of the Cold War, but not in student unionism, where the NUS proclaims that “under capitalism the university does not function as a site of critical learning, but rather as a training ground for industry and big business.”
OK, so how do we explain the skills shortage and the preponderance of “social change” courses?
But wait, it gets better: “A fundamental restructuring of the education sector, and of society, is necessary.”
Says who? A pack of undergraduate nitwits who have grown fat off the proceeds of compulsory student unionism.
Luckily for students who would rather make up their own minds whether they want to spend hundreds of dollars each year joining a union, the Federal Government will later this year introduce Voluntary Student Unionism legislation to the Senate. Expect plenty of noise.
And as pointed out in a recent rare moment of the Sydney Morning Herald reporting first and spinning second, the NUS is struggling to come up with a response to the dire threat of consumer choice.
Their main counter attack so far has been an Orwellian assault on language. From the NUS website: “It is very important that we take control of the language being used … Voluntary Student Unionism [VSU] is a positive term in a linguistic sense, and in an ideological sense, for some.”
Can’t let choice be positive: “Instead of VSU … say Anti-Student Organisation.”
In fact, don’t even use the word ‘union’ in this individualist era: “Instead of student union say student organisation or student council.”
And sidestep the ugly truth: “Never refer to compulsory fees or membership. Always use universal membership or universal fees.”
So this will be an interesting year if you have a student at home.
Either they will be happily under the capitalist thumb, learning something useful or intellectually rigorous, or they will somehow combine a zeal for social change with white-hot fury that the Commonwealth wants to give students like them more freedom of choice.
And if you want to get your money’s worth when helping a child through university, encourage them to learn the core disciplines of their area of interest, subjects like mathematics, history, or a language, rather than content-free spin-offs such as social change or cultural studies.
University costs plenty, so focus on the protein – not the frippery.