Tag Archives: Education

Education in the Classics: An All-singing, All-dancing Discussion of Student Debt and Higher Learning

“And I’m Javert! Do not forget my name. Do not forget me, 24601.”

Inspector Javert introducing himself in the Prologue to the musical version of Les Miserables

Much like the brooding Inspector in Victor Hugo’s classic story, Andrew Norton – Higher Education Program Director at public policy think tank the Grattan Institute – is deeply concerned about people paying their debt to society. Where Javert’s focus is the reform of paroled prisoners however, and in particular the story’s central protagonist Jean Valjean – the prisoner 24601 of the opening line above – Norton’s issue in the 21st century is the financial debt of University graduates.

The ballooning level of ‘bad debt’ in the Australian student loan system – and particularly the projected increase in this figure if the Federal government’s plans for ‘de-regulated University funding’ finally pass the Senate – has Norton thoroughly exercised. The key problem, he would have us believe, is the earnings threshold to repayments. Under the Australian student loan system, debtors don’t have to start paying back their loans until after they graduate and are earning more than $54,000 – not exactly a high bar, given the average national wage, according to 2014 Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, is $58,000. Norton though would have it that this threshold is actually too high – with those darned freeloading students apparently racking up education debts like nobody’s business, safe in the knowledge that they’ll never beat the criterion to trigger their loan repayments. To give the man his own voice on this point:

“If we keep the current [repayment] threshold, increasing numbers of students will not repay their debt and the taxpayers will have to pay the cost of their education. It ends up being a very generous scheme for people who have gone to university compared to other people from the social security system”

Andrew Norton quoted by Higher Education Editor Julie Hare in The Australian.

Well, obviously I for one am completely behind Mr Norton on this one, and stand shocked that…wait…what’s that you say? Actually, now that you mention it, yes, I do seem to recall that Norton is also on record in his 2012 report ‘Graduate Winners: Assessing the public and private benefits of higher education’ as advocating increased University fees on the basis that graduates enjoy a substantial advantage in earnings over their non-matriculating counterparts.

Now, to be fair, if you read between the lines, what Norton seems to actually be saying – with admirable consistency – is that he believes in market deregulation, and that the Government should minimize its involvement in higher education funding. Unfortunately, if you read what is actually ON the lines, his attempts to stitch economic statistics into two opposing arguments do leave him looking a bit exposed to accusations of doublespeak.

Even if your underlying philosophy is consistent, it pays to consider the compatibility of the messages you put out. Reproduced from Scott Adams' Dilbert cartoon, first published 1995.

Even if your underlying philosophy is consistent, it pays to consider the compatibility of the messages you put out. Reproduced from Scott Adams’ Dilbert cartoon, first published 1995.

But back to those freeloading students and their persistent attempts to get out of paying their dues. Not satisfied with pushing down the repayment threshold, Norton would also like to see student debt passed on to next of kin in the event of a debtor’s premature (by which he means “while the little scallywag still owes us for their education”) death.

This would seem a bit over the top in an unpleasant workhouse overseer springing from the pen of Dickens. To hear it coming from a seriously regarded 21st century social policy advocate is, to my mind, stunning.

Indeed, returning to the musical reflection on debt and forgiveness with which I started this essay, Norton’s suggestion might not look out of place in an updated Les Mis. Picture it – as the plaintive refrains of Fantine’s show-stopping death fade and the audience mop their tears, Javert and Valjean begin their baritone confrontation, mano-a-mano, hope against despair, redemption juxtaposed against punishment. After he sneers that “Monsieur le Mayor” – the former convict 24601 – can never change his innate criminality, the French policeman could throw in that the good mayor’s new adopted daughter Cosette owes the state 1000 Francs for the night courses in accountancy her mother had been taking to work her way out of the life of prostitution she’d been forced into by an uncaring society.

Okay, I may be paraphrasing Norton slightly on that one, but I think it basically works.

“Look Javert – I think the study debt thing is way out of line. Isn’t it enough that our society’s uncaring Economic Rationalist policies pushed her into prostitution and a pitiful early death?”
Still image taken from Tom Hooper’s 2012 cinematic adaptation of Les Miserables.

What the headline-catching issue of fees and loans is all about though is how we pay for our University system, and ultimately – although this point seems to be sadly neglected on the intellectual battlefield of the moment – what purpose Universities serve in our society. The fundamental policy dilemma Norton and others are seeking to address is that our public Universities – which are both a substantial industry bringing in foreign exchange to Australia and, we are told, the engines of our own future national economic prosperity – are significantly under funded, and the current political landscape is very much against changing that any time soon.

According to the national peak industry body Universities Australia, our wide and sunburned land ranks a not-so-proud 30th out of the 31 OECD countries for public investment in higher education as a percentage of GDP. Taking that figure as their inspiration, Universities Australia – led by the ‘Group of 8’ coalition of Australia’s top Tertiary institutions – has spent the past couple of years demanding fee deregulation as a way of raising more funding to support their activities.

The response to this from Education Minister Christopher Pyne was to say “Absolutely, let’s bring on the Free Market.”

Yes, said Mr Pyne, university fees should absolutely be de-regulated, with institutions free to charge what they considered appropriate for the education they provided. Fees could go up, or they could go down. Entirely up to the Universities.

Oh, and by the way, we’re also going to cut 20% from the Government’s bulk funding for student places.

This is pretty much a policy equivalent of James Wan’s cult classic 2004 horror movie Saw: Yes, Vice Chancellor, you can get your institution out of the funding bind I have trapped you in, but only if you use the sharpened blade of deregulated fees we’ll leave in the room with you to carve an extra pound of flesh from your students.

As you might have gathered, I’m not a fan of user-pays in higher education. I can accept though that there is a need for debate, and ultimately a new social contract around how our society can support the education system we need.

Loans, unfortunately, skew this debate by softening the intellectual battle ground. “Sure your education will cost you,” says the Government “But we’ll loan you the money, so even the most under-privileged can afford it.”

The essential problem with this premise that tends to get skipped over is that in the Australian education system, most matriculating students still come straight to University from high school. In essence we’re talking about a demographic group which is barely, if at all, old enough to legally consume alcohol. And Pyne expects them to do a cost-benefit analysis and long term financial modeling on the value proposition of a loan? Was he ever 18?

Yes, of course it would be eminently wise for any young (or even middle-aged) scholar contemplating taking on education debt to carefully consider the benefits they will accrue from that education, and whether they are worth the opportunity cost of the discounted future income – sacrificing three, or four, or five years of wages now (and taking on that debt) for the promise of higher wages and greater career opportunity in the future.

It would also – in my admittedly out-of-touch estimations – be smart for my 17 year old daughter to finish her Psychology homework before she turns on Facebook and starts watching YouTube clips of amusing animals. Curiously, she seems resistant to the logic of this position. And yet Norton, Pyne, and others like them would have us believe she is ready to accept the reality of taking on $100,000 of debt before she’s even encountered the reality of significant work and managing a household budget.

Sure, there are some incredibly clued up young people out there with vision and drive who have their lives together and their futures mapped out, and see a carefully targeted education loan as a key step toward realizing their strategic career plan. But if you’re engaging your joined-up-policy-thinking and pushing this down to the government’s target of 40% participation in higher education, you’re crossing deep into a cohort whose idea of financial planning is likely to be more along the lines of “Daddy, can I borrow $400 to get a tattoo of Grumpy Cat? It would be so funny and I’d never get tired of it.”

Basically, I’m not convinced young adults sit down and complete a full cost-benefit analysis before lining up tequila shots in Bali or hooking up on schoolies week.

Or taking on a student loan.

The money changes hands above your head and out of your sight, with the actual amounts vastly out of proportion to the everyday experience of most applicants. For the prospective student, ticking a box to take on a debt of more money than they’ve earned, handled, or even seen in their entire life is typically so abstracted from everyday reality as to be essentially meaningless. More damagingly too, the temporal distance of the loans – exciting education today for money in the distant future – like all offers of seductive credit – is all about lowering your mental barriers to the true cost of what you’re buying.

In effect, student loans are the gateway drug to excessive charges and a privatized education system.

Indeed, I’m falling into another little trap of Pyne’s rhetoric myself here – I’ve spent this entire essay so far countering the mechanics of the proposed loan system, when my fundamental problem with student debt (as you may have gathered if you’ve gotten this far) is a philosophical one. Student loans and education debt undermine the effectiveness of education as a tool of social mobility – the opposite of what we need to do to work against the natural tendency of wealth disparity to increase.

As explained by economist Thomas Piketty in his 2013 book ‘Capital in the Twenty-first century’ – it is the natural order of the capitalist economic system for wealth inequality to grow. Capital makes money. If you have money, it can be made to work for you and bring in more money. That is the simple brilliance of the system – you do not need breeding, or training, or other exclusionary characteristics – all you need is money. But the flip side of that, as unionists and youthful agitators have been protesting since the day Adam Smith’s first treatise rolled off the printing press, is that those who do not have access to capital are excluded – the rich will get richer, the poor will not. A rising tide may float all boats, as they say, but if you’re not one of the lucky few to own a yacht, things get increasingly uncomfortable as the water rises.

It’s hard to swim against the flow of capital, and education stands almost alone as a non-disruptive engine for social mobility to counter that trend – providing a means for motivated and gifted individuals to access careers, networks, and opportunities that allow them to change their place in the social and economic order.

In this context, the expectation of debt becomes highly regressive – substantially reducing the redistributive potential of education. Loans simply do not work as a way of equalising social access to the benefits of education. A student who can pay (or whose family will pay) fees up-front leaves the education system with no debt – affording them an immediate advantage in wealth accrual over a student who takes on debt to fund their education, so that there is still a widening gap between rich and poor built into that system.

So, on to act three of our education song-and-dance. If I’m so dead set against the concept of increased student fees and loans, how are we supposed to fix the looming funding hole in our education system? I suspect the keen eyed among you may already have identified an alternative solution framed by the discussion up to this point – as a society, we could simply choose to spend MORE on higher education.

There is no sense in which the Australian taxpayer is being milked by the national University system. 30th place in terms of relative funding, let’s remember, out of the 31 nations in the OECD – and “well at least we aren’t last” is hardly a point of national pride to cling to. It’s like turning up at your child’s school swim carnival and watching them touch the wall just ahead of the asthmatic foreign exchange student who had never been in a body of water deeper than their knees until they arrived in the country this term. Yes, it could still be worse, but you’re not exactly going to raise the achievement around the water cooler at work the next day bursting with parental pride.

As Steven Parker – Vice Chancellor of the University of Canberra – observes, we don’t even need to be world leaders in the progressive funding stakes here. If, instead of manufacturing a funding crisis by imposing an arbitrary 20% cut on an already strained system, we instead upped our funding input to the OECD average, all projected funding issues for Universities in this country go away, and the strength of the sector would be assured for a generation. Parker, sadly, is pretty much a lone voice against de-regulation among Australian Vice Chancellors, speaking out stridently and consistently against the Pyne proposal.

His willingness to buck the consensus of his peers and put his counter-arguments on record though does give me hope for the continued intellectual relevance of the University sector. If there was a Council of Elrond to decide who should carry the Ring of Power to Canberra and toss it in the Captain Cook Water Spout to end the hold of Economic Rationalism over higher education in this country (if only it were that easy!), Parker would have my vote.

All well and good then, I hear you say, but where does the money come from to pay for such largesse? Well, if Norton was anywhere close to correct in his ‘Graduate Winners’ report and there is actually a link between University education and career financial success, then a mechanism that could cover the cost of the higher education system already exists. The positive news for the Government on this score gets even better too – because this funding mechanism operates on a sliding scale finely tuned to the success of an individual – so those who benefit most from their education will pay the most. Hoorah – the Liberal ideal! Christopher Pyne must be dancing in his office to hear such news.

So what is this magical financial saviour? It’s called income tax.

If Norton is right and graduates obtain an earnings advantage from their degree – money they would not otherwise have made without that degree – then it follows absolutely and immediately from this that they will also pay more tax – tax they would not otherwise have paid – over the course of their working life.

Let’s just assume for a second that the Grattan institute calculations are valid and that the average University graduate enjoys something like a lifetime $600,000 earnings advantage over their compatriots without degrees – with Norton’s dodgy extension from here being that 90% ($540,000) of this is attributable to the University education our graduate received. As I’ve discussed before, the assumptions behind these numbers actually make them fairly unreliable – but as they’re Norton’s figures I think it’s intellectually reasonable to turn them back on him here. Okay – so lets assume this $540,000 is at the top marginal tax rate of 47% – and throw in the 2% medicare levy as well. That would come out as the government collecting up to $265,000 in extra tax from that individual that they wouldn’t otherwise have received. By Norton’s logic, the government could eliminate fees, bring back student grants, and STILL come out ahead of the game.

And hey, if you want to look at the large scale implications of this kind of policy, having fully state funded University education doesn’t exactly seem to have crippled the German economy.

So, as we come to the finale of our theatrical review and the music rises to its triumphant crescendo, how do you in the audience want things to finish up for our student protagonist? Would you have them meekly accept Javert’s label as loan account number 24601 and get back to work? Or are you rooting for them to stand up, bare their chest, and declaim to the world:

“Who am I? Who am I? I am Jean Valjean!”

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All for one, and none for all: Is educational choice the best choice for society?

“The solution to the problems in our education system would be to make private schools illegal and assign every child to a [state] school by random lottery”

Warren Buffett – US Billionaire investor and philanthropist

The fact that this advocacy of educational collectivism comes not from Hugo Chavez or the Chinese Communist Party, but rather the “Sage of Omaha” himself – doyenne of the economic rationalists, Warren Buffett – amply demonstrates the complexity of this debate. Buffett is no closet communist – his argument comes straight from the core of macroeconomic theory, and in particular his longstanding advocacy for equality of opportunity and social mobility – key elements for a healthy and efficient capitalist market. Private schools, Buffett argues, act as a barrier to both.

Fundamentally, he would have you believe, the fact that a minority of wealthy families can choose to opt out of the state sector and send their children to expensive and elite private schools has a negative impact on the overall education of the vast majority of students whose families cannot afford to do the same.

Education is one of the most transformative and socially liberating forces in Western culture. Is it right then to allow some citizens to buy access to a different - possibly superior - education system? Or would society be better served by common experience and opportunity?

Education is one of the most transformative and socially liberating forces in Western culture. Is it right then to allow some citizens to buy access to a different – possibly superior – education system? Or would society be better served by common experience and opportunity?

Many people support this stance in theory…often right up until it comes to their own children’s education – the common refrain ringing out around Western Suburbs dinner tables being “Yes, but we really didn’t have any choice but to go private.”

“She’s not a hypocrite, she just put what I wanted first, instead of what people thought.”

James Thomson – defending his Mother’s decision to send him to private school.

Elevating this statement above standard familial tribulations, Thomson’s mother is no mere middle class matriarch, but long time British Labour MP for the socially deprived inner London constituency of Hackney North and Stoke Newington, Diane Abbott.

The division between supporters and opponents of comprehensive state education is particularly stark in Britain, where this debate is a long established battle line in the larger divide of class and culture at the heart of the national psyche.

Prior to her decision to send James to the £10,000 per year City of London School, Abbott – a charismatic figure sitting well to the political left of her party – was an outspoken advocate for the State Schooling system and comprehensive education. Not surprisingly then, her apparent Damascene conversion, abruptly switching sides on this ideologically laden ground in 1993, drew a particularly vitriolic response. Attacked by her colleagues, excoriated by both the left wing press – for her class betrayal – and the right wing press for her political hypocrisy, and – probably most painfully of all – calmly (if smugly) supported in her decision to ‘exercise personal choice’ by her political opponents in the Conservative party, Abbott’s decision saw her brought low by hubris – and probably ended her ambitions to lead the Labour Party.

She must have known this reaction was inevitable – particularly given her earlier open criticism of other senior party figures – including Tony Blair and Harriet Harman – for sending their children to selective state schools – and yet she claims it was the only decision she could have made. “I was taught that you sacrifice everything for your child” said Abbott in defending her position. “That school was the making of him”.

Diane Abbott - UK Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington since 1987. First Afro-Carribean woman elected to parliament in the UK, single mother, free thinker, strident advocate for human rights, one-time contender for the party leadership. Do her education choices reveal feet of clay, or should we be more wary of passing judgement?

Diane Abbott – UK Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington since 1987. First Afro-Carribean woman elected to parliament in the UK, single mother, free thinker, strident advocate for human rights, one-time contender for the party leadership. Do her education choices reveal feet of clay, or should we be more wary of passing judgement?

So who’s right – Buffett or Abbott? Are private schools a route to realizing the full potential of our children, or a parasitic drain on the educational framework of a nation? Or am I just pulling an old debater’s sleight of hand by setting out a false dichotomy to drive the narrative along?

In answering those questions, the first step is to evaluate just what educational advantage accrues from private schooling. However you slice exam results, it’s hard to argue with the numbers that show private schools (and their cousins in Australia, the independent Catholic school system) outperform state schools in direct terms. Private schools have topped the overall Western Australian Certificate of Education (WACE) standings in my home state for 6 of the past 7 years – with the only exception being the elite Perth Modern school in 2012 – which although government-run is entirely selective of its student intake on the basis of a competitive entry exam.

Like many elementary correlations, however, this comparative success conceals deeper statistical truth beneath its seductive surface. State and independent schools can’t really be directly compared, as the two tap different student markets. Academically motivated students from stable middle class backgrounds are not equally distributed between the two…and at the other end of the scale, nor are disruptive kids with family histories of inter-generational unemployment.

Can family background make such a difference? Studies in the UK have long replicated a curious result that strikes to the core of this division. The most significant predictor of success in the education system there is apparently parents wanting to send their children to private school . The interesting point for me being that the key word in that phrase is the second one – wanting. Adjusted for socio-economic status, there is actually no significant additional impact in following through on this desire – it is the mere fact of wanting to send your child to private school that accounts for the positive impacts.

What? So Noel Edmonds is right and Cosmic Ordering actually works? Well, no – but wouldn’t that be a fabulously ironic outcome? No – back to the correlation trap – wanting to send your children to a Private (which in the minds of many, we must remember, is synonymous with ‘better’) school is an indicator of prioritizing education and being prepared to make sacrifices (in the form of substantial fees, or the location in which you choose to live) for your children’s education. And there is the rub – engaged parents who care about education and actively support their children’s learning tend to produce better educational outcomes. These are households where kids are brought up to think of education as important. Where parents know when their children’s exams are and go to the trouble of finding out how they went. Where Mum and Dad want to discuss essay plans and metaphors for duplicity in Othello when their offspring would much rather be googling ‘LOL cats’ and messaging their friends on Snapchat. Where parents say things like “let’s have a screen free day and all take turns finding poems to read aloud.”

As you can tell, weekends in the rockysubjects household are a real blast – I can’t imagine why my teenage daughter keeps hiding in her bedroom with her iPad.

The point being, these are kids who were always destined to do well academically and benefit from schooling. And they would do so in ANY school they attended. The crux of Buffett’s argument is that by creaming many of these aspirational youngsters off (self selecting) into a private schooling system we impoverish the state system of the dynamism, energy, and behavioural modeling such students (and families) could bring to many school communities.

Got a sink school with failing exam performance and no resources for extracurricular activities? Send 50 kids from pushy middle class families parented by well connected professionals and under-employed highly educated stay-at-home mums and dads, and see how long that state of affairs lasts.

On the other side of the coin too, this strips much of the luster from the nominally superior performance of independent schools. Creaming off a higher-tracking, better prepared cadre of students and lavishing them with resources and opportunity, it would be an indictment worthy of shame if private schools did NOT top the league tables year-on-year.

Viewed in this light, the value proposition of this ‘elite’ educational system is far from obvious.

Indeed, according to analysis by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) of the results from standardized international tests, once adjustments have been made for variations in socio-economic status, there is actually NO significant difference in mean scores between government, independent and Catholic schools.

“Holy real estate pricing index Batman!” I hear the middle class collectively respond. “You mean all those thousands of dollars I’m spending on Brett and Chardonay’s school fees aren’t actually doing anything?”

Well, not exactly – and here is where things get interesting (and a bit morally ambiguous from a sociological point of view) – because while no distinction shows up in these universal international tests of scholastic ability, there is a significant difference in the results of the country-specific Australian Tertiary Admission Ranks (ATAR) examination system. Research published in 2009 by analyst Gary Marks found that socio-economic background adjusted results in this key national examination system were eight percentile ranks higher for students from independent schools and four higher for those at Catholic schools when compared to students educated in the government system.

That’s a heck of an advantage – and to go back to Warren Buffett’s ideas, represents a gross inefficiency in our education system. In essence, combine Marks’ findings with the ACER analysis and what we see is that private schooling isn’t producing brighter kids or enabling greater intellectual development, but it is preparing them better for the specific ‘game’ of the national examination system. Think of the comparative results here as the equivalent of a polo match. Even if both teams are equally athletic, if only one has had pony riding lessons, the outcome is not likely to be in doubt. And as long as we judge student achievement – and access to resources such as higher education (and jobs) – on the basis of this sort of examination system, that distinction is what your school fees are buying.

Of course, this is all just abstract pontification on educational theory, right? After all, there’s no way we could ever test this model out by taking on the entrenched system of elite privilege by redistributing students and educational resources across society is there?

Ah – not so fast my laissez faire friend.

When Michael Palin, as a member of the ground-breaking surrealist comedy group Monty Python, sang in 1980 of “Finland, Finland, Finland – a country where I quite want to be” his intention was comic irony – singling out a country possessing few redeeming features – “a poor second to Belgium when going abroad” as Palin’s lyrics put it – to laud in his song of wistful desire. The true (unintended) irony though turned out to be that, in educational terms, he was actually onto something.

Pedagogical literature abounds with laudatory tales and critiques of the Finnish ‘education miracle’ – with a regular trail of international observers and eager apostles to rival El Camino de Santiago beating a path to the door of the Finnish education ministry on fact finding missions. And like many pilgrimages, a deal of myth has grown up around this miracle to convince any unbelievers – so it does pay to approach this subject with a critical eye. Even when you strip away the hyperbole though, there is an undeniable success story there to be appreciated.

Prior to 1970, Finland was not ‘languishing at the bottom of the OECD education rankings’ as some commentators would suggest – if for no other reason than no such league table then existed, with the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) first undertaken in 2000. Nor though was the country likely to appear on anybody’s list of the world’s most outstanding education systems – simply operating a typical European hybrid model of mixed state, selective, and private schools and educators, all doing their best to guide their student charges through their formative years.

In fertile conditions provided by the homogenous Finnish culture and strong social democratic traditions however, the progressive social movements of the 1960s gained a particularly dominant position within the country, and after searching analysis, a radical plan was put into action to wipe away the messy panoply of mixed providers, creating a new basic education system built around common comprehensive schooling – with ‘quality for all’ the watchword.

Gone were the private schools – no more exclusive education of the wealthy elite. Gone too the sorting of pupils by ‘ability’ and with it the self segregation of the middle class and differential resourcing of schools. A true democratization of education then, with all in the same boat. Crucially, we should also add that this ‘boat’ was made thoroughly seaworthy – with education funding a national priority, and teachers well remunerated and elevated to a position of significant social cachet.

Such changes were passionately opposed in some quarters, with entrenched interests – particularly in the erstwhile elitist private school sector – campaigning long and vociferously in parliamentary and public forums against the educational re-engineering. Unlike in many corners of Europe, however, the social progressives in Finland were able to hold their ground as the radical movements of the 60s declined – defending the need for their experiment to run its course.

And the result? Educational anarchy? A wasted generation of students unable to fulfill their potential? Spiraling descent into a dark age of reduced international competitiveness? Umm….no. In fact, internal debate on the Finnish educational model essentially died a natural death with publication of the first PISA rankings in 2000, in which the nation was found to sit atop the international order – a position that has remained more or less consistent ever since.

Further remarkable strength hides behind these headline figures too. According to one OECD report “No other country has so little variation in outcomes between schools, and the gap within schools between the top and bottom-achieving students is extraordinarily modest as well. Finnish schools seem to serve all students well, regardless of family background or socio-economic status.”

Heady stuff then. Particularly if you believe in the socially transformative potential of education.

And yet, just when you thought I’d nailed my intellectual thesis to the doors of the Cathedral, I have to muddy the waters again by telling you that I’m 100% behind Abbott in her decision to send her son to private school. Okay, maybe 85% since she, perhaps understandably, flinched in the full glare of media criticism and failed to display the courage of her convictions by explaining and defending her position in public – but that still has her walking away with a clear A grade (at least under Australian marking criteria).

This apparent cognitive dissonance though is not so hypocritical as the Sun and Mirror newspapers might suggest through the banner headlines they used to pillory Abbott’s schooling choices. I genuinely believe – as, I suspect, does she – that universal comprehensive education is the best thing for society. But it has to be an all or nothing proposition. The “Full Finnish”, if you will. If an avenue exists to offer some students a better – a more valuable, however you wish to judge that – experience (and in the less socially progressive Anglophone West I can’t see Eton or Sydney Grammar running up the white flag and joining the collective any time soon) well-meaning parents will inevitably be drawn to that opportunity – even though it is not the best thing for society as a whole.

And who can blame them? Certainly, as my wife and I sit here weighing up education choices for our youngest daughter, I would be reluctant to cast the first stone.

The Educational Promise of Online Learning – Rainbow Connection or DNS error: File not found?

The embrace of remote delivery and engagement is often held to offer a revolutionary opportunity in higher education. MOOC learning may be the latest manifestation of this mantra, but the vision is not a new one, with the winds of pedagogical change heralded since the era of chat rooms and dial up modems – management guru Peter Drucker famously writing in 1997 that:

“[T]hirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive. It’s as large a change as when we first got the printed book.”

Well, “So we’ve been told and some choose to believe it…” – so said (or more accurately, sang) Kermit the Frog in 1979’s ‘The Muppet Movie’ – and as students of the great green sage will be well aware, the next line is “I know they’re wrong, wait and see.”

So is online learning really the way of the future? A paradigm shift in the delivery of teaching that will allow instruction and educational inclusion of the world’s masses with greater efficiency and ever decreasing cost? Or is the digital education revolution, like Kermit’s rainbow, a mere illusion – a destination that will ever recede from us as we seek to approach it?

My own engagement with online educational tools stretches back to the early years of the 21st century, soon after I arrived on the scene as a newly minted, enthusiastic lecturer determined to change the world and enrich the intellectual life of generations of engaged and grateful young students. To paraphrase US academic Matt Cartmill, it turns out this was a bit like becoming an Archbishop to meet girls – but that’s another story.

In those days, whiteboards, chalkboards, and slide and overhead projectors (anyone under the age of 30, go ask your parents about that one) were the tools of the trade, but the internet was already rearing its shiny and alluring head in education circles, and tech-savvy early adopters were exploring its potential in all manner of fields.

As I immersed myself in my first year of classes, I soon found keen young students asking – with all the bright eyed intensity of true believers fresh from Scientology boot camp – whether notes would be made available online. Clearly, the thinking ran, if only they could read the notes on the internet, everything would be alright and knowledge and understanding would pass directly into their cerebral cortices and become part of their being.

Young, innovative, and eager to please as I was, I took up the challenge and worked to create learning materials to support my courses, doubling my workload to lay out packages of notes, study guides, and additional readings.

Students expressed their gratitude, colleagues slapped me on the back, line managers signed off on my probationary progress reports and labeled me an innovator. And then along came integrated online learning platforms (or Virtual Learning Environments – VLE – as they’ve since become) and suddenly my eyes were opened.

The ability to monitor student use at an individual level in these integrated platforms meant I could see exactly who was accessing the material, and when. What this brought home to me was that for all their professed desire for more support (and the time invested by me as tutor in preparing material), depressingly few students actually used the support opportunities when they were made available to them.

With the benefit of hindsight, this is no different in its fundamentals to classmates from my own University days who would invest themselves in compiling complete lecture notes – begging, borrowing, and in a few (with the distance of years, rather amusing) cases, stealing to cover the gaps in their trusty ring binders resulting from illness, employment commitments, or benders in the local beer garden – and then never look at them again. This in itself though is probably a truth we would do well to put at the forefront of any discussion of education – the techniques may change, but the fundamental nature of students does not.

Initially I was a bit depressed by this realization. All that work. All my good intentions. I’d built my learning outpost – General Store, Saloon, hitching posts and all – and all I had to show for it was a few tumbleweeds blowing down Main Street.

What I had done in crafting a VLE to my own inner vision clearly wasn’t working for my students, and armed with this realization, I went back to the beginning and re-designed my online support package around the principle of encouraging a more engaged learning model – presenting materials in a range of ways to facilitate and encourage interaction from different perspectives. Yes, more work for me as a teacher, but this time – working to a more defined educational vision – the result was strikingly different. Student use of online resources increased dramatically compared to my initial attempts, the ethic of interactive and independent learning seemed to carry over into contact hours in the classroom, and at the end of the course, yes, student exam marks increased significantly too.

The point in presenting this second act to the story is not to hold myself up as some paragon of virtue (it was, after all, my own launch failure I was addressing here) – it’s that it wasn’t the subject matter that was critical to this change, or the platform. What made the difference was an engaged educator taking the time and effort to make things work.

Ultimately, VLE and online learning are simply new tools for educators to apply to their mission – and even a tool that can in one hand create a masterpiece might in another produce nothing more than a crude caricature. Octogenarian parishioner Cecilia Gimenez became an internet phenomenon a few years ago for her fresco ‘restoration’ in the Sanctuary of Mercy Church in Borja, Spain. The artwork retained the same setting as it had before, the same subject – the plaintive Christ gazing up from beneath his crown of thorns – same intention to inspire grace and devotion in the viewer, yet the addition of Gimenez’s brushwork saw Elías García Martínez’s original Ecce Homo (Behold the Man) – by no means a masterpiece, but a passable religious artwork in the Catholic tradition, by all accounts – turned into what BBC Europe correspondent Christian Fraser described as resembling “a crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic”.

Online learning does provide a powerful pedagogical tool that can change the relationship between educator and student. Using such online approaches though is no more likely in and of itself to improve educational outcomes than waving a paintbrush is to produce a masterwork.

Even magic bullets need someone to fire them in the right direction.

More pennies for your thoughts? University fees and the Grattan report

“Graduates…have attractive jobs, above-average pay and status. They take interesting courses and enjoy student life. I think they are getting a bargain compared with their lifetime earnings potential.”

So says Andrew Norton, higher education programme director at the Grattan Institute, in his recent report ‘Graduate Winners: Assessing the public and private benefits of higher education’. Norton’s principle thesis is that graduates, rather than society as a whole, are the beneficiaries of higher education – and should therefore pay more, potentially much more, of the true costs involved in providing that education.

Discussion around the funding of higher education is important. Indeed, I would agree with Norton that a university education provides graduates (and even those students who do not graduate) with significant opportunities and benefits, so it is fair to question the degree to which an individual should contribute to the costs of that educational experience. But to follow the accounting approach laid out in the Grattan report is to cede an argument that should be philosophical and sociological to the realm of economics. It’s like the old logical fallacy “So have you stopped beating your wife yet?” By adopting the neat rhetorical device of comparative earnings, Norton and others like him are attempting to make the debate about quantifying the benefits graduates accrue, rather than what a University education is really for.

For all it’s careful analysis and sound-bite friendly calculations though (quotable statistics are a much easier sell than philosophical nuances, after all), when you look behind the numbers, Norton’s study is founded on what may be a less than secure foundation – the assumption that the higher lifetime earnings (and other benefits in relation to the general population) of graduates arise explicitly because of the degree they have obtained. But hang on a second, let’s unpack that assumption – because what Norton seems to be doing here is committing the schoolboy error of a equating correlation to causation.

How so? Well, are the higher earnings of graduates truly related to their University education, or are both simply related to another controlling variable? Since the 1950s, by way of analogy, both atmospheric CO2 and obesity levels in Australian society have increased sharply. To imply a causative relationship would be to suggest that in some way atmospheric CO2 causes obesity – as if we’re all just making our own carbohydrates directly through photosynthesis, perhaps – whereas in reality both are symptomatic of the common controlling variable of increased wealth.

In essence, the problem for Norton here – as he himself recognises in the inner workings of the report – is that the comparison between graduates and non-graduates is not unbiased. Yes, there are wonderful success stories of prodigiously driven, inspirational individuals who forgo the graduate path to achievement – stand up and take a bow Richard Branson and Steve Jobs – but in general, merit-based entry criteria mean that it is a brighter, more ambitious, and more self motivated cadre that undertake University education. If we also assume that career and business success correlates strongly to the same aspects of intelligence and drive, then it should not be a surprising observation that graduates are in the top bracket of career earners. How, then, do we calculate how much of the extra earning of graduates should be attributed to their University education, and how much to their innate ability?

Now here’s where I’m eternally grateful to Norton because, like a magician revealing how the illusion is performed, he tells us how it’s done. Admittedly in an appendix where an over-worked education reporter with a filing deadline to meet isn’t exactly likely to stumble across it. He assumes a number. Empirical basis? Scientific calculation? Theoretical underpinning? Nope. An arbitrary 10%. We’ll just assume University graduates enjoy a 10% earnings advantage due to their innate ability, and the rest of their career success is the result of their University experience.

Now, yes, this assumption is critical to make the calculations tractable so Norton can come up with his headline-grabbing $600,000 lifetime earnings differential…but the flip side is that the modeling is then simulating an artificial system rather than the behaviour it purports to capture. It’s like the old joke about a physicist charged with figuring out how to increase the milk production of a herd of cows, whose solution begins “First, assume a spherical cow…”

Norton does allow in the appendix for alternative calculations with an ability premium of up to 40%…but why stop there? Why not 50%? Or 100%? Or maybe they start with a premium of 150% but all that ‘student life’ they enjoy actually stunts their achievement. Okay I may be guilty of reductio ad absurdum here – but the point is that the ability premium has no innate basis – it exists only for that convenient mathematical purpose. There is no way we can resolve whether 10, or 20, or 200% is the appropriate figure to use. Like a Chinese high speed train project then – the Grattan analysis is built to look impressive and modern, but laid on potentially insecure foundations.

Why is that important? Surely the comprehensive modeling and calculations Norton undertakes are sufficiently robust that the conclusions of the report can’t be undermined by this one trivial simplification, can they? I’m not so confident on that score.

Let me illustrate by way of a detour through my own professional back yard. Physicist William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) – a towering scientific intellect acknowledged as one of the greatest exponents of thermodynamics of the 19th Century – ‘proved’ in 1862 that the Earth was somewhere between 20 and 400 million years old. Earth scientists of the day thought that figure far too young to account for the global history evinced by the geological record, but none could fault his calculations. Indeed, Thomson’s calculations were accurate – brilliant even – and still stand as a valid construction. But they produce the wrong result. Out by a factor of at least 10, with the Earth’s actual age – should you be interested – now measured to around 4.54±0.05 billion years. How can this be? Because Thomson based his workings on the simplifying assumption that the Earth lacks an internal heat source, when in actuality radioactive decay has been continuously pumping out heat throughout geological history.

Although numbers may look good when quoted in a nice banner headline, any calculation, no matter how exquisitely conceived and accurately undertaken, is only useful if the underlying assumptions are true.

The relationship between higher education and society is a social compact that should be open for ongoing discussion, and as a part of that, we should be debating how Universities should be funded. In that context, the Grattan report should be seen as an important contribution, offering a coherent and well argued monetarist view of how the University system should operate. But it is nothing more than that. And if you think the economic modeling Norton presents should be privileged over other philosophical and sociological viewpoints in the discussion of the University system…I have a friend in Nigeria who would like to talk to you about a fortuitous windfall he’d like your help with.