Facing Our Educational Futures


Bill Cope & Mary Kalantzis


University and vocational education in Australia are being swept along by two great, and closely related transformations: commercialisation and internationalisation. Both have enormous positive potentials for the country. Poorly conceived and managed, however, each could do enormous damage. Neither is well understood by government, even though its current policies and actions are having an enormous impact.

To take the first of these transformations, post-school education is in the midst of a massive and rapid shift from being driven by the ethos and objectives of the public sector (providing citizens with entitlements) to the ethos and objectives of the private sector (user pays).

There have been major positives in this change. For instance, there has been significant growth in university and vocational education, despite stagnating and now declining government funding. Some of this is because the post-school sector is now actively marketing its wares. To meet the full potential of the market, it is becoming broader and more flexible in what it offers. The result has been growth: more people studying and more people working in the education sector. The additional revenue is almost entirely a consequence of commercialisation. In the early 1980s, 90% of the universities' total income was from the public purse; now it's 53%.

Another positive is the potential to end middle class welfare. Many of those who benefit from university education particularly are from social groups who can afford to pay, or their employers can afford to pay. And if they do not pay while they learn, they should pay on a deferred basis for no other reason than that their education will mean more dollars in the pocket. There is a compelling argument to concentrate public funding where it is needed: for equity groups such as lower income earning families, mothers, Indigenous people and those immigrants who are disadvantaged.

The second great transformation is internationalisation. Education export is a critical aspect of the progressive commercialisation of Australian education. Now it's worth $3 billion per year, and this translates into an estimated 40,000 jobs across the economy - a desperately important contribution in today's economic climate.

But internationalisation has a much more profound potential than just the 'export bucks'. It has the potential to integrate us fully into our region. Asia will indisputably remain the main market for Australian education. Australians will benefit from the direct personal contacts, the enduring alumni links, and the knowledge and hopefully positive disposition to the country that Asian students take away with them. This is why the most successful of Australia's education exporters are 'internationalising' their curricula, making sure that the benefits of an open, tolerant and cosmopolitan university experience flow through to all their students. It means that a university education will be - indeed must be - a quite different experience to what it was even a decade ago. At the very heart of the new university experience, every student should become more comfortable with global cultural diversity and learn how to benefit from it.

Talking up the positives is the easy part of the transformation of post-school education. Not properly understood and managed, however, each of these two great transformative forces could be disastrously counterproductive. Consider commercialisation, for instance. Just how far can this process go before it becomes counterproductive?

Comparison is often made between Australia and the United States - where there are numerous private universities and colleges, where the research which produces intellectual capital is massively funded by private industry and foundations, and where elaborate student loan schemes support hefty fees.

The fact is that there are neither the cultural traditions nor the institutional structures in Australia for this to work. Australia's big capitalists are scarcely generous. We'll be waiting for a long time before there's a Packer Foundation which has the impact on learning and national development that the Ford or the Rockefeller Foundations have had. America's private universities and colleges are massively endowed, with resources that have taken centuries to accumulate. Nor are there tax benefits that might provide the incentive for effective commercialisation: for student fees or for university connected commercial research and development.

There is no alternative, then, for substantial public investment in education in Australia. Paradoxically, without public investment, even the commercial potential as a supplement to publicly funding, is hampered. Take information technologies, for instance. The next great area market potential in university and vocational education is flexible delivery using new technologies such computers and the Internet. This, however, requires massive investment in new course development and in shaping totally new types of relationships with students. The national benefits could be enormous: a global market at the end of the telephone lines, and no need for the extraordinary fixed infrastructure costs of traditional places of learning. But we will simply not be able to capitalise on this commercial opportunity without massive public investment. It is salutary to remember that US domination of these very information technologies - computers and the Internet - was not the result of private entrepreneurship but public investment in the military.

But what are we doing in Australia at this moment? The dogmas of commercialisation have so gone to our heads that the Federal Government's main education strategy is to cut funding in the name of 'efficiencies'. Would the owner of any other business cut its investment base when it is growing, and be so naive as to think the cut could possibly create growth, foster innovation and enhance international competitiveness? The cuts just make workers in the education sector batten down the hatches, take the message that the sector is not valued, and retreat into a smaller version what is known and achievable.

Then there are the dangers of internationalisation. There is no doubt that the Howard Government's sweep to power was in part a popular reaction against the effects of globalisation. Keating had said we would benefit from our proximity to Asia, from a multiculturalism which celebrated open labour markets, and from being a proudly diverse and outward looking society. In the context of economic rationalism and restructuring, Howard's 'battlers' felt far from convinced that this message was working for them. So Howard played the let's be 'relaxed and comfortable' tune, which really meant, let's go back to the certitudes of the Aussie past. 'For all of us' was a coded version of Mrs Hanson's somewhat more honest and direct notion of 'equality' - equality for the whites against the special privileges accorded immigrants, Aborigines, foreign investors and foreign products.

This reaction to globalisation is coming back to haunt us. To go with the populist flow - which has been Howard's inclination - is to do the country enormous damage. There is incontrovertible evidence that Howard's battler-populism has made it much harder to sell Australia this year, not just Australian education, but other culture-sensitive industries such as tourism. The hard proof is in the declining rates of growth in these sectors of the economy. You can say that business is business when you are talking about the price of a boatload of dirt or however many bales of wool. But tourism and education - areas of employment growth and where our economic future lies - are highly personalised services. If you don't feel welcomed, that you belong for the duration of your stay, that you are fully valued as a human being rather than a fistful of dollars, you're not going to buy these particular products. The slightest scent of racism and you will not stay in this market. This is the great mistake Howard has made by courting populism. The real losers are going to be the battlers, diddled by the opportunism of their political leaders.

Keating failed to sell the message of internationalism. He failed to prove that globalisation and multiculturalism can benefit all Australians. But instead of the opposite - shortsighted populism - we need to find a way to sell this message effectively. In the case of education export, for instance, we need to sell the benefits of having Asian students, not just as we restructure our economy and improve employment prospects in the education sector, but the benefits of a thoroughly internationalist education for all Australian students.

When it comes to commercialisation and internationalisation, Australia is being dragged into the future by our political masters, the consequences of which they do not fully understand. University and vocational education are symptoms of a larger problem: the great potential of the 'lucky country' but the opportunities that will be certainly be lost without foresight and leadership. n

Professor Mary Kalantzis is Dean of the Faculty of Education, Language and Community Services at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

Dr Bill Cope is Director of the Centre for Workplace Communication and Culture.

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