Learning your place

In May last year The Australian’s chief opinion editor, Nick Cater, launched a book called The Lucky Culture. In fact, he launched it about a dozen times in various cities to various rooms of variously serious people.

At its Melbourne launch, hosted by the Institute of Public Affairs at the Rendezvous Grand Hotel, the largest boo was reserved for Cater’s announcement that the number of people with university educations was climbing ever upward in Australia. People for whom study might once have stopped at high school now had degrees in arts or engineering or commerce. Campus life had turned an entire generation into professionals. Boo, indeed.

Cater, of course, has an honours degree in sociology from the University of Exeter. Sitting on stage beside him was Professor Geoffrey Blainey, whose life has been education, who has held chairs at the University of Melbourne and at Harvard. He did not demur.

There is a special kind of hate reserved for education in Cater’s book. It produces a “self-appointed elite”. He bemoans its place in life as “a commodity purchased for the purpose of self-advancement”, as if self-advancement might be a bad thing. Seemingly without irony, and certainly without humour, he complains education makes “the educationally credentialled citizen entitled to look down on the educationally deprived”.

It is against this backdrop that the Abbott government’s approach to education must be viewed. The influence of thinking like Cater’s is everywhere, as are the boos of the IPA crowd. Cuts to universities, the linking of government contributions to the consumer price index, the un-capping of fees and the tethering of student loans to the 10-year bond rate will each have the effect of ensuring fewer people study. Especially people without significant means. The climb upward will be halted.

Cater’s concern for education is a hypocritical one. He is educated, and yet he believes others should not be. They should be freed from the curse of knowledge, kept in place by the fact they have no chance of rising out of it. It is both a romantic view of the uneducated and a self-interested view of those with degrees.

Abbott’s education program will see professions such as medicine and the law returned to those who could afford to study them. Scholarships are pointed to when this argument is made, but they are a specious replacement. A fair system is to be remade into one where the poor or middle class are forced to rely on the caprice of generosity. University will no longer be a right. As they do in the US, families will worry over whether their children can afford to be educated.

Conservatives such as Cater think tertiary education is some kind of decadence. They see universities as fortresses of left-wing ideology. But scratching the surface of these arguments, and of this budget, it is plain to see that changes to universities are really about class, about making it ever more difficult to move up from one’s station.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 7, 2014 as "Learning your place".

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