What is Education For?

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. Such a surge took place with the lifting of caps on enrolments in 2012. Today the gap between applications for university places and acceptances is narrowing, which means more students are being accepted into courses. Universities have an incentive to enroll more students because there is no funding risk to them, essentially trading on the increasingly illusory prospect of “upward mobility and success”. The government funds their place to the university but shifts that debt to the student. When merit selection occurred in courses, there was restraint but students are increasingly enrolled below previously accepted minimum standards across all universities. There has been a sustained decline in per capita public funding of higher education in Australia.

The new students are being sold short. While numbers are increasing, the rate of increase in university staff is much lower, resulting in a higher staff/student ratio and bigger classes. There has also been a shift in the academic workforce with large increases in part-time and casual work. There are more casual academics than permanent by head count, and more non-academic than academic university staff. A recently released Australian Higher Education Industrial Association report, The Higher Education Workforce of the Future, suggests even more casualisation of work is justified, in part, by an increased need to connect industry with universities. Will that strengthen the work of universities? What is the relationship between the increased casualisation of the academic workforce and the quality of education?

More students are now ostensibly gaining the opportunity for “upward mobility and success”. However, the increase in debt arising from HECS contributions implies that “success” is not realised the same way by students and the government. HECS debt is growing and becoming a significant personal burden, reaching $30 billion in 2013. The average time to achieve full employment after graduation is increasingly longer. In America, education debt is second only to mortgage debt as a personal burden. Is this the future we want in Australia?

Until recently, higher education policy was not a major election issue. This changed when the Gillard government decided to remove funds from higher education to resource the ‘Gonski reforms,’ providing more support for disadvantaged schools. Improving publicly funded school education based on need was regarded as desirable, but not at the expense of post-secondary education. This growing public awareness of the importance of higher education financing was intensified when the Abbott government’s proposal to allow universities to charge what they wished for their courses raised the prospect of the $100,000 degree. The suggestion that education operates in a market, where supply and demand are synchronised, is part of the ‘new’ language.

But will this neoliberal language stand in the way of recognising the genuine social benefits of higher education? In a world where employment prospects are declining, and social inequalities are increasing, we would do well to pay attention to Orr’s question “What is education for?”

David Ritchie, Charles Sturt University

The views and opinions expressed above are personal and belong solely to the author.


AHEIA & PwC (2016) Australian Higher Education Workforce of the Future Report

Orr D (1991) What Is Education For? Six myths about the foundations of modern education, and six new principles to replace them.

Norton, A., & Cherastidtham, I., (2014) Mapping Australian higher education, 2014-15, Grattan Institute.

Universities Australia (2015) Higher Education and Research Facts and Figures.