Getting a Handle on Higher Education

The State’s principal concern in overseeing the education of children has never been the educational development of children but merely its own control of the educational process.[1]

Almost everyone needs some form of higher education. But what sort? And who should pay for it?

For more than a generation, we in the West have said, “Well, the government ought to provide for this.” But there is a problem with government funded education. Perhaps it would be better to say, “There are many problems with government funded education, one of these being the cost.”

In 1991 aged 35, I decided I needed to go to university to gain a Bachelor of Arts. Because I had a family and was working full-time, I studied for my degree externally from the University of New England, at Armidale in country NSW, Australia. My B.A. took me six and a half years.

This suited me, because it meant I was able to be with my family and keep working, while studying. I generally went to university for about a week annually to do a compulsory residential school, and there was no cost to me to stay on campus, as I generally stayed with my brother and his family nearby.

I paid for the course myself: no loan. Because I paid for each semester before I started, I got a 20% discount. The university employed its lecturers to teach me, and I paid. The “User-pays” philosophy is a sound one for all things. I wanted the degree, and I paid for it. I had a couple of failures, and I had to do extra courses to compensate. No government money came into it (except that which was paid to the university), and that kept it simple.

You see, a funny thing happens when people get something for nothing. They don’t value it in the same way. “Free” education generally leads to a higher rate of failure, because students tell themselves, “It doesn’t matter too much, because it was free anyway.”

I understand about 15% of Australians go to university. If there was no money provided by government to go, would the same number go? Probably not. Not as many could afford it. But if there was no government money, would there be less failures? I believe so.

So, we can probably say with some safety that for some students, government money subsidising them subsidises their university failure. What a waste.

But there’s more. When governments say, “We’ll encourage and finance university studies,” who gets paid? The process quickly becomes politicised. If some ivory tower educational bureaucrat on a six-figure salary decides we need more rocket scientists and brain surgeons, but we don’t need more accountants or computer technicians, guess which institutions or courses will get the money?

Also, when there is a big sum to be divided up by someone, everyone has their favourites. So bias and cronyism quickly creep in to the decision-making. The wishes of students and parents? Irrelevant.

A much better process is to let the free-market choose. Students go and study what they want, and the institutions chosen by the students get the student’s money. The institutions that are profit and market oriented will do well. Those that don’t have the best reputations, or are inefficient or lax, will either have to lift their game or go bust. That keeps it really simple.

Our three sons all studied at government instrumentalities called TAFES: Technical and Further Education. Their common conclusion? It was very ordinary. No staff had any get up and go, or desire to excel. Staff were lazy. There was no profit motive. Well, why should taxpayer’s money be confiscated to subsidise staff and institutions like that?

The internet and smart educational providers are putting pressure on all of that. Students will be able to get qualified cheaper, while getting a quality education. The old men in tweed jackets that had security of tenure, that never had to strain themselves to compete, will be out of a job, and that’s a good thing for us all.

Conclusion:                                                                                                                        

Governments should have nothing to do with higher education, or any education for that matter. It’s the surest way to bring about corruption, a loss of standards, and inefficiency, because governments have their own agendas they’ll pursue. And any educational institutions that can’t stand the heat of the free-market’s kitchen, should get out of the kitchen.

They’ll have to.

[1] B. Adams, and J. Stein, “Who Owns the Children: Compulsory Education and the Dilemma of Ultimate Authority,” p.9. Quoted in Gary DeMar, “God and Government,” Vol.3, 2001, p.252.