I’ve just caught up with a remarkable speech by the Australian Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, who is responsible for higher education for the country’s still new Labor government. Addressing the National Press Club last September on the topic of innovation, he spoke not of technology or economics, but of the arts, humanities and social science. Placing them at the forefront of the search for “new ways of understanding ourselves and our world,” Senator Carr concluded:
I believe the creative arts – and the humanities and the social sciences – make a terrible mistake when they claim support on the basis of their commercial value. Whatever they may be worth in the marketplace, it is their intrinsic value we should treasure them for. We should support these disciplines because they give us pleasure, knowledge, meaning, and inspiration. No other pay-off is required.
It’s impossible to imagine any of his British counterparts, or any of our university managers, being so bold. The dull hand of market economics now governs higher education to such an extent that the core values of education are regularly impoverished.
Ever since the Labour Government in Britain introduced “top-up fees” for universities, the sector is governed by the mantra that “students now pay for their education” in the same way as if they were buying a car. Only they aren’t. As I explained in an article to first year students in 2006, the fees they pay cover only a small part of the total cost of providing their experience of education. This means predominantly middle class students remain the beneficiaries of substantial subsidies no matter how much they talk about being consumers or customers. But most importantly, they don’t pay because you can’t buy education – it’s not a commodity; it is a process, an experience, which depends on a social contract of active and mutual participation that cannot be costed out.
Its one thing for students to mis-understand this, quite another for the education media and our managers who regularly repeat the economistic assumptions. A simple read of Senator Carr’s speech could benefit all of us, especially in these recessionary times.