There’s No Such Thing As A Free Higher Education


John Eldridge busts the myths and shreds the arguments in favour of free higher learning.

With higher education funding back on the reform agenda, partisans are trotting out their lines. At one extreme are the proponents of full deregulation and market logic – they who would reshape Australian universities in an American image.

At the other are those calling for a return to the supposedly halcyon days of free tertiary education. Though such a move looks less likely than ever, there is no dampening the enthusiasm of its perennial cheer squad.

It’s long been de rigueur for progressives to punctuate any discussion about higher education with impassioned invocations of the golden era of the Whitlam reforms, along with claims that all manner of ills might be remedied by their return.

As a progressive, I find this policy preoccupation bewildering. There is simply no reason to think that the reintroduction of free higher education would further the progressive cause. In truth, it would set it back very significantly.

To begin with, ‘free’ higher education is a misnomer. Higher education can no more be made ‘free’ by government fiat than can any other valuable service. What is truly involved is not a choice as to whether higher education should come at a cost, but rather one as to where that cost should fall.

This is not a pedantic or academic point. It goes to the heart of the issue. This is because a move to ‘free’ higher education would involve shifting the costs of education from students to the community in general.

The University of Melbourne. (IMAGE: Geoff Penaluna, Flickr).
The University of Melbourne. (IMAGE: Geoff Penaluna, Flickr).

Since university attendance remains skewed in favour of the privileged, such a change would usher in a system which forced every member of the community – including the least well-off – to subsidise the costs of educating a group comprised largely of the well-off middle class. This is the very definition of a regressive policy.

The ingredients of this conclusion are all matters of which progressives are well aware. Indeed, the fact that low-SES students are underrepresented in higher education is a problem over which the left regularly – and properly – frets. Yet when this line of argument is put to a free-education partisan, it is almost always fiercely refuted.

The first common rejoinder focuses on the fact that many members of the current political elite had the benefit of a free tertiary education during the Whitlam era. If a free university education was good enough then, goes the argument, it should be good enough now.

Australian policy debate is not today characterised by maturity or a zeal for logic. But our public life has reached its nadir if it has become acceptable to defend an otherwise indefensible policy proposal purely for the sake of promoting generational parity.

A more principled counterargument focuses on the theory that free higher education would attract more low-SES students to university. The difficulty with this theory is that it is flatly contrary to almost every shred of relevant evidence.

In fact, the question of whether HECS deters low-SES students from participating in higher education was directly explored in a 1999 study carried out by the Commonwealth Department of Education. The conclusion was that the rates of low-SES participation were largely referable to a range of other factors.

The simple truth is that for the vast majority of Australia’s most disadvantaged school leavers, there are many vastly more powerful forces than debt barring entry to higher education.

The last counterargument rests on the notion that introducing free higher education would have a social impact which cannot be comprehended by economics: that it would be an expression of the value that we, as a polity, place on learning and knowledge.

This argument has something to commend it. But isn’t the best way of demonstrating the importance the community places on education ensuring that every Australian has the choice to attend university if they wish?

If so, aren’t our resources better spent on breaking down the many barriers to low-SES participation in higher education that have nothing to do with HECS?

The answer to this – that we needn’t choose, that we can in fact do both – is impeccable as an abstract proposition. But the realities of politics and the exigencies of budgets will force us to decide.

The time has come for progressive politics to let go of its attachment to free higher education. It’s unrealistic, it’s regressive, and it draws attention away from the many real barriers which stand between the disadvantaged and the universities.

John Eldridge is a PhD candidate and sessional lecturer at the University of Adelaide.