We’ve seen a revolution in access to education. A century back just a few privileged young people went to elite schools and universities. Now primary, secondary, and tertiary education is a realistic option for many, perhaps even most young people in countries like Australia.

I keep wondering about the underlying economics that has supported the expansion of public education. Who pays? To me the critical factor is not the absolute number but the proportion of young people who access extended education – the increases in that proportion is what has driven changes in funding mechanisms and government policy.

 As a thought experiment, consider an island with 100 young people. Imagine that only one goes to university. Let’s say the richest person goes and pays for it. In this case the economics of public education needn’t trouble us. It’s a private affair. But now imagine that a different individual, a poor one, with a desire to be a doctor, wants to go. Their training costs $100. This can be funded if every family pays a tax of $1. They may choose to do that because everyone on the island will benefit from having a doctor. (For simplicity I’ve assumed the island has 100 families with one child in each).

Now let’s suppose that ten young people aspire to go to university. That costs more – $1000. Now every family has to pay $10 in their taxes. It’s getting pricey fast.

Then imagine the graduates are seen to prosper and consequently half of all young people – 50 – aspire to university. That will cost $5000. Suddenly, the taxes are $50 per family. Those who go to university pay, and the half that don’t go (and don’t enjoy the private benefit of education), still pay the same amount. Oddly, a good thing like publicly supported tertiary education begins to look divisive.

Our country, and the UK, with its ancient universities, is not so different from my hypothetical island. Way back in history university was a private matter and students paid. Then in Australia there were fees and some scholarships. Eventually the government abolished fees to increase access. But as the proportions of students attending university grew the costs mounted. It was not just politicians being evil. It really was necessary to find a way of covering the increased costs in order to further expand opportunities to attend. So, income contingent loans were introduced.

This means that graduates only pay when, or even if, they benefit financially. This system has made education more accessible for thousands and thousands of students.

Now let’s go back to the island and expand further. Imagine 100, or all the young people on the island, go to university. That costs $10,000. Everyone pays $100 each. Now it doesn’t matter whether it is a direct fee or a flat tax. The costs are the same. I’m sure economists can provide more progressive alternatives to a flat tax but the example of universal education is instructive as it reminds us that education is not, and sadly, never will be free.

Now let’s look at the social and emotional impacts of an increasing proportion of young people going to university.

 When only one person on our island went, it was nice for them. It didn’t cost much for others. There was no real stigma for the others. When 10 people went, things changed. Many of the other 90 probably began to wish they’d gone. As we aimed to be more inclusive and provided opportunities for 50 per cent or even 90 per cent of students, that was good, but did it progressively increase the sense of exclusion felt by those who did not go?

These feelings of exclusion seem very strong at present. When people talk about Trump or Brexit they often ask if the votes were a protest against exclusion from an educated elite and a feeling of hostility against the status, as well as the earning potential, that education provides.

Paradoxically, of course, the more we succeed with access schemes, the more intense the potential feelings of exclusion from those who still don’t go on to tertiary education may be.

Only by ensuring everyone goes, or at least has the opportunity, to access tertiary education do we avoid that problem. Multiple pathways to different forms of future study (including experiments with microcredentials) are emerging. In Australia we may see something approaching 50 per cent of school leavers going to university, 25 per cent going on to another form of post-school training, and perhaps 25 per cent won’t want to see inside a classroom for a while. There is work to do to ensure that everyone feels included.

I think we all want an inclusive, just, and supportive society. The expansion of education has been a triumph of the last century. Sometimes it looks like it has been mishandled, – first there were fees, then they were abolished, then re-introduced via a range of complex (though in the case of ‘income contingent loans’ very sensible) loans and taxes. But it’s not a tale of high fees and corporatisation. It’s an evolution and as the proportion of people accessing education has changed, so too have the challenges.

 The next challenge to me is – quaternary education – post-graduate degrees. I’m not sure we’ve yet got an inclusive system there. Then there’s the problem of spreading the tax burden. Knowledge economies grow, so in the long run society’s investment will pay off and we should be able to afford universal education. But devising the right funding and taxation levies is complex. I’ll leave that to the professionals.

 Professor Merlin Crossley

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Student Life




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