What students pay for isn’t always education

The Public Universities Australia lobby is unhappy with utilitarian attitudes to education among ministers who see it is about, “securing employment, which supposedly ensures that graduates are able to earn a good income from which they can afford to repay their student loan debt.”

This PUA argues in considerable length is wrong on many grounds, ethical, educational, financial and philosophical.

PUA also raises a pragmatic point – whether students get value for money. “There is also the question of whether student fees should be paid at all when they are not spent by universities directly on the costs of their education,” in which the PUA includes, teaching, research and community outreach.

Good-o, but it would be a problem in these straightened times if students, especially internationals, started asking what was in it for them for their fees to fund research.

It’s a question that could come up, it has in the past. In 2015 Andrew Norton  made an impressively questioning case.

““In theory, students could benefit from greater investment in their education. In practice, there is no guarantee that additional funding, whether private or public, would provide direct educational benefits, such as small classes or more personalised help. That is because universities have powerful incentives to spend extra money on research instead.”

It resonated with then powerful people. Belinda Robinson, then CEO of Universities Australia noted, “what this demonstrates is that dedicated funding streams for research are clearly insufficient to fund the real costs of doing world-class research … while the quality of education is enhanced by being research-informed, funding for research must not come at the expense of teaching and learning programmes.”

And then Uni Adelaide VC, Warren Bebbington pointed out, “there is little doubt that part funding research from course fees makes for a disconnect between the fee a student pays  and the outcomes the student expects. It also conceals the real cost of research, and its systemic underfunding.” (CMM November 2 2015).

The question for students then and now is how much they get of what they pay for.


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