Tertiary education in Australia is a commodity. It’s bought and sold, marketed and measured in economic terms… and with good reason. International education is Australia’s third largest export industry and the tertiary education sector contributes 70% of that export income.
The management of tertiary education, whether through government policy or institutional bureaucracy, when monopolised by economic perspectives, risks ignoring a whole range of goods that are not just intrinsic but essential to the very nature of education itself.
The problem is that economic models are based on a particular understanding of what it means to be human: homo economicus. Crudely put homo economicus is a rational actor concerned with ordering the world to maximise the good measured in purely financial terms. While economic models are important models, they, like all models, are limited. Education must recognise the complexity of not just human experience but the whole of material existence. It requires models that take into account irrationality as well as rationality, emotion as well as reason; models that generate understanding as well as productivity, compassion as well as efficiency. So when economic models dominate the management of a sector which necessitates openness to a multiplicity of models and perspectives for its own sake, that management is inherently deficient.
Conversations that ask difficult questions about the good in terms of ethics and morality, personal and social wellbeing require reflective consideration over time. They are anathema to models that require the minimisation of inputs in order to maximise outputs; any goods that can never be monetarised (or only with considerable difficulty) similarly. Funders want measurable outcomes in terms of employability and contribution to Gross Domestic Product (GDP), graduate salaries and related economic benchmarks.
In recent years, some acknowledgement to the breadth of educational experience has come in the form of the measurement of “student experience” and a concern for the role of the humanities in fostering creativity and innovation (although generally for the sake of entrepreneurship). Nevertheless, there is still a large gap between these acknowledgements and the reclamation of the notion of education as the harbinger of justice and human flourishing that was envisaged by our ancient Greek forebears. What would it take to bring about a valuing of the non-monetarisable goods in the contemporary Australian tertiary education context? At a minimum, we need to recognise the limitation of the current economic models.
Written by Rev. Dr Anita Monro, Principal of Grace College, a women’s residential college on the St Lucia Campus of The University of Queensland.
Images used are sourced from uplash.com