"The free market is a fine arbiter of some things,
but aesthetic and intellectual value is not among them."
Hilary McPhee
("Art and money", The Australian Review of Books, October 1997, p. 13).

Market Forces are a Curse on Education

Extract from Fraser (1998) "Market Forces are a Curse on Education,"
Opinion Section, Sydney Morning Herald, Jan. 10, 1998

..... Why [is there a push towards making market forces apply to university education], you might ask, when public opinion polls continue to indicate that Australians support an increased allocation from taxation to higher education. And to higher education as they have known it, not the super-charged market model which demotes tertiary education to a service and interprets the relationship between teacher and student as a contract between buyer and seller.

The shift is cleverly got up as an appeal to democratic rights and student needs. More choice. More market responsiveness. The lean new institutions will of necessity be nore responsive to client demands. Weak performers will go to the wall. The buzz phrase is "student centred".

Funding will be more closely geared to student needs and demands. Vouchers, the funding system preferred by the market, will put power into the hands of the buyers, not the sellers. The vocational priorities of government, industry and business will be better met. More accountability. Tough world out there.

So it goes. Sounds sharp and efficient. But just think about it for a minute. The "buyer" might be your 17-year-old son or daughter. Neither will have the kind of information at his or her fingertips that will enable him or her to make an informed and rational choice about the exact course components that will best serve now and ten years down the track.

He or she will have to rely to a considerable extent on the reputation and integrity of of the institution and the academics who sustain it. There is limited benefit to be had from unlimited "choice". A university education is not a consumer durable and you can't drive it round the block. You need an initial guarantee of overall standards and good treatment.

And there is also a limit to the long-term utility of vocationally relevant and highly tailored offerings. Read what employers have to say about the type of graduate they prefer, and think about what will be needed of young people in a world where rapid change is the norm and specific skills become obsolete more quickly than computer packages.

Even the hardheads in the financial pages acknowledge that employers want flexible and adaptable staff who are quick to understand diverse situations and can solve problems as they arise.

The market won't guarantee their emergence at the end of the tertiary education production line. But a well-structured and resourced tertiary institution whose staff have time and opportunity to blend teaching with the stimulus of research (and vice versa), and who can spend as much time planning as as they spend filling in performance indicator sheets or competitive grant applications just might.

But you would have to go offshore to find such a tertiary institution at the moment. Most Australian universities are struggling. And there is simply a limit to the funds that they can access for themselves without compromising the independence that marked them out as universities, not businesses, in the first place.

I do wonder sometimes why market gurus with opinions about how to structure the optimal financing of universities with optimal outputs don't put their various prescriptions together. Then they might notice the gap between theory and reality. In their own terms.

The market model of a university with its neat stringencies will not give them back the necessary firepower and certainly not the intellectual anarchy that launched the empire of Bill Gates. It won't give them Steve Jobs. It certainly won't give them Professor Peter Doherty and a Nobel prize for medicine. Doherty was so unfocussed about his "choices" that he went initially into veterinary science.

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