Still waiting for the (Education) Revolution

Amid its fairly prosaic terms of reference, the Bradley Review of Higher Education had one matter of ideals and principles to address: the Rudd Government’s brief included a focus on social inclusion, specifically on “supporting and widening access to higher education, including participation by students from a wide range of backgrounds”.

In the end the Bradley Report seems caught between the discontent of its knowledgeable framers with the inequities of the system, and a sort of fatalism about what prevents Australian universities from doing better for bright students from marginalized backgrounds. Its target of 20% of students in Australian higher education coming from low social-economic status background by 2020 is fairly bold. Yet the specific recommendations regarding social inclusion equivocate between bucking against and merely tweaking the elements of a system which, the Report admits, has not worked.

The Bradley Report airs the open secret that changes to Australian higher education over recent decades have done little to change the profile of those who participate. Neither the abolition of tertiary fees nor, conversely, the introduction of the HECS scheme has made a significant impact. And the Report raises important questions about how to encourage Indigenous students, people in remote areas, and those from low socio-economic backgrounds even to consider university education before the last year or two of school, by which time it is generally too late.

Yet despite its critique of current and recent policy and practice, the Bradley Report is stronger on adjusting the existing failed structures than on explaining how new money will achieve change where old money and current policy has failed. It goes into considerable detail, for instance, on fixing systems of income support for students as a basis for achieving social inclusion. These programs such as Austudy and Abstudy have certainly become less and less effective, but the Bradley recommendations amount to restoring a system unable, even at its earliest or best, to change the profile of Australian student population.

This failure, if it is fair to call it that, lies in what the Report and its terms of reference did not ask: whether our crowded and under-resourced campuses are actually places where marginalized groups can flourish, or whether they have become, despite our best hopes, mechanisms for the Darwinian triumph of the already-privileged. A greater measure of reflection on the historical trajectory of Australian higher education is called for here.

Although the Australian universities of decades past were elite institutions, they were places where it was hoped leaders would be formed through inspiration, challenge and the building of relationships, with mentors and with peers. They were small enough to imagine that such relationships were possible, and their most shining moments and most remarkable talents were revealed, inside and outside classrooms, when knowledge was catalyzed by the experience of community. The past exclusivity and other features of university social make-up and culture are no cause for uncritical nostalgia. Yet the reality of the university as a community of scholars was once taken for granted, and somewhere in the pursuit of economies of scale it has often got lost.

This vision was left behind in a rush to expansion that we must now view with ambivalence. Growth in the number of university places theoretically gave access to a greater number, and hence to a more diverse group, of students. Yet what they had access to has changed at least as much as those who have come. It turns out that while the Australian middle class has all the university places it needs for its own offspring, who can at least survive in the environment of the mega-university, the under-privileged find their own exclusion has gone unscathed or even been reinforced. What were once desirable but exclusive venues now risk being theoretically accessible but uninspiring places that impart knowledge and skills competently yet, in the last analysis, confirm existing capacities more than create new ones. If somehow the present structures and programs did manage to attract and retain a more diverse group of students, the prospect is still not inspiring; the economistic language of the Report limits the meaning of social inclusion to the capacity of a larger and more diverse group to contribute to wealth creation.

A bleak and bland consensus about the social vocation of higher education has been common to both sides of politics for a long time. The Howard government’s recent neglect of university funding may have been a bad example, but it was a not a unique one. The Dawkins reforms are too simplistically condemned without acknowledging their genuinely mixed legacy but they, like the more active and quite gratuitous VSU agenda of late, undermined the capacity of Australian universities to be places where something more profound than vocational skills could be acquired, and where outstanding rather than merely acceptable student experiences might be found.

To address the wide funding shortfall, which Bradley recommends and Gillard must, will only take us to the point where more profound questions about inclusion can be asked. The signs of this possibility exist, even if they are few. The one genuinely revolutionary prospect in the Bradley Report is its recommendation that funding follow students, to whichever public or private institution attracts them.

Although commentary on the Report so far predicts further rationalization and economies of scale, the real challenge and promise of this model is that some institutions might take this opportunity to claim a new pedagogical high ground, and not just contend for the prizes of research that tend to bedazzle at present. It is possible or even likely that some of these will be private providers, already less in harness to the odd remnant of “command economy” that still dominates Australian higher education.

Doubtless a new emphasis on community and pedagogy would have to involve private as well as public funding, and will not be the desired or necessary path for every Australian tertiary student. Someone, however, is bound to ask how a university education ought to be inclusive, and transformative. With greater room for differentiation and choice, some institutions might take a step beyond the important curricular developments implemented in Melbourne and being considered elsewhere, and construct new and different forms of educational experience to engage and support highly capable students from more diverse backgrounds. Recovering a sense of community and the possibility of transformative outcomes for students would be the most revolutionary thing any educational reform could hope for.

1 comment:

Ted said...

Maybe we need some excellent private Universities in the US mold, which can provide exemplars of institutions which are self-consciously communities of scholars. The state-funded Universities might then lift their vision.