In 1991 American academic David Orr challenged graduating students to ask “What is education for?” In posing the question, Orr identified six myths about the foundations of modern education, including the notion that “the purpose of education is that of giving you the means for upward mobility and success”. Orr then identified six principles to replace those myths: for example, “knowledge carries with it the responsibility to see that it is well used in the world”, and “we cannot say we know something until we understand the effects of this knowledge on real people and their communities”. Taking Orr’s challenge seriously could assist us in deciding whether Australian higher education is on the right track.
The public policy shift towards the neoliberal idea that higher education primarily benefits the individual began when the Hawke Labor Government introduced the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) in 1989. By making students contribute a significant proportion of the cost of degrees, governments were able to limit the budgetary impost from surges in enrolments.