Want Fries With That PhD?

That Australia’s current system of higher education is unsustainable is a fact most are willing to concede. The latest evidence, revealed by the ABC, is of a $13.5 billion debt accrued over four years. This news adds another nail to the coffin of Entitlement Era higher ed and must surely accelerate a large-scale overhaul of the present—pun intended—arrangement.

As a graduate of two-and-a-bit university degrees, I am aware of the doors my tertiary education has opened, and am grateful for the subsidies and deferred payment system through HECS/HELP. That being said, it seems ludicrous my higher education should be paid for by taxpayers, including many who did not receive higher education themselves. Despite what our society leads me and  fellow Gen Y-ers to believe, we do not have a right to go to university, nor are we entitled to see those studies heavily subsidised.

Speaking for myself, I would have attended university even if required to pay the full fees for my courses—albeit under a deferred-payment scheme— because my interests and professional ambitions lie in academia. On the other hand, I can safely assume that many of my co-students chose to go to university precisely because of the current arrangements. They chose uni because it was the easy option: no upfront fees, Youth Allowance, low-cost courses that might be repaid (or not paid at all, should they go overseas) in the distant future, and — or so they believe — because of better job prospects.

Encouraging this mindset was the uncapping of university places under Labor, as it carried us one step closer to socialist Nirvana: a bachelor’s certificate on every mantelpiece, a gown and cap in every wardrobe. All that achieved was to lower the bar. Many university degrees, and here one thinks especially of arts grads, might more appropriately be hung in the garden shed than occupy pride of place in the recent graduate’s hallway.

What I’m getting at is not inspired by elitism; a university graduate is as likely to make a fool of himself as any other person. No, my gripe is twofold and it’s not based on a white-male, CIS-privileged, capitalist conspiracy, despite what you may hear. Firstly, there’s the issue of entitlement, which is raging unchecked among us Gen Y-ers. And secondly, there’s the frustrating notion that suggests: ‘a truly just society must provide—for free if possible—a university degree to everyone.’

I have no workable policy solutions to Australia’s higher-ed problem in Australia, only some questions, which seem like a good way to pursue the conversation:

Why do we deserve a degree?

Why does everyone and anyone have a right to higher education?

Why does anyone think they deserve to have their higher education paid for by others?

Why measure equality based on the number of degrees per capita?

Once everyone has a bachelor’s degree, what next?

Next, how many PhDs will be be required as a condition of employment to ask, “Do you want fries with that?”

This article first appeared on Quadrant Magazine Online.

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