From sandstone to millstone
Critics say unqualified private school students paying their way into uni will cheapen education. It’s a bit late for that.

"The Main Quadrangle of the University of Sydney" by Jason Tong - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

At the University of Sydney, the rooms in which classics and philosophy are taught are next to the main quadrangle. That’s because in the past they were considered the institution’s most important subjects. One of the university’s founders, William Charles Wentworth, wrote that he wanted “the child of every class to become great and useful in the destinies of his country … whether they are disciples of Moses, of Jesus, of Mahomed, of Vishnu, or of Buddha.” 

The university’s account of its history states that in the 1850s it “broke with the traditions of Britain’s ancient universities by admitting students on academic merit rather than on the basis of religion or social class”. In the 21st century, it has decided to invert that formula. Last week, it was revealed that the university had run a pilot scheme with the elite Scots College so that the idiot offspring of the wealthy didn’t have to dirty their hands with anything as vulgar as the HSC. Instead, the exams were replaced with a Mickey Mouse diploma that could grant access to a “restricted” range of courses (which, to allay any parental worries, included health sciences, oral health, and the diploma of law).

Not only were Scots and Sydney Uni unashamed of this arrangement, they both had the temerity to defend it on the grounds of equity. “The HSC is a great matriculation pathway for the top 20% of students,” the Scots Headmaster Dr Ian Lambert said. “But has mixed opportunities, particularly for boys, in the middle rank of learners.” Which is a bit like saying the Olympics has mixed opportunities for middling athletes. It was “an honest attempt to widen access to the university”, said Usyd’s Peter McCallum. Honest attempts don’t usually take place in secret, but McCallum was on the right track painting the scheme as a kind of scholarship. It is, only with the university as the grateful recipient in reduced circumstances.

In this rhetoric, the unqualified are now a kind of special needs group. Fortunately, humanitarians have opened a pathway to end discrimination against them. Dr Lambert says that “anyone” can apply to do the $12,000 diploma. Just as they are welcome to stay at the Ritz hotel.

The New South Wales education minister Adrian Piccoli is outraged, and has argued that no school students should have an “unfair advantage”. The universities seem perplexed. Why all the fuss now? They’ve been in the unfair-advantage business for years. Brendan Nelson was complaining of “unacceptably low” academic standards back in 2005, when full-fee places were routinely offered to students with HSC scores in the mid 30s. More recently, institutions have inflated their ATAR admission scores to add prestige, only to allow dispensations for almost everybody. An engineering course might have a cut off of 80, but a student scoring 65 can stroll in off the back of an interview, or a sports game, or just about anything else “taken into account”. Adding cold hard cash to that list doesn’t seem like much of a stretch.

After all, those Scots boys might be slow on the draw, but at least they can understand the language their courses are in. International students needing an interpreter for their lectures are passed all the time. One NSW business school academic told the Sydney Morning Herald of “unbelievable pressure” to pass these students, from administrators who “don’t want a cool flow of income being interrupted by real-world problems”. A lecturer friend of mine recently took the rare step of failing a student whose didn’t seem to speak English at all. The university begged him to reconsider, but he refused. On graduation he was surprised to bump into her – and even more surprised to see her wearing a mortarboard.

Universities that prioritise education feel as dated as William Charles Wentworth’s muttonchops. Senior administrators are no longer teachers, but are drawn from the business world; some are former mining bosses. The Group of Eight universities recently advocated a “de-politicised” review of higher education, “one that involved pre-eminent employer/business groups such as … the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Minerals Council of Australia.” That’s how things work in Australia. Want a review of welfare? Ask a mining executive. Want to set your tax policy? Ask a mining executive. Want to know the future of education? Ask a mining executive, who will then consult with some more.

The idea that philosophy is something worthwhile has gone from a university’s heart. It’s not just a quaint curio – it’s now something attracts open mockery. The Liberal Party had a field day with a research grant to study Hegel, describing it as “ridiculous”. The topic wasn’t even the kind of post-modern activist stuff that riles the right. It was an enquiry into religion, the classic, central Western civilisation stuff that’s supposedly “under threat”. Perhaps they’re right about that. If we’re headed back to pre-1850s educational values, we might as well keep going further into the past. After all, at least the rich idiot sons of the aristocracy had some sense of obligation.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 


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