Degrees For Sale

Degrees For Sale

How to buy a degree from your local service provider.

Quite frankly, when the “Operation Varsity Blues” news broke earlier this year, I was unsurprised. The revelation that wealthy parents illegally bribe university admissions officials to secure their children places at elite universities seemed far from a well-kept secret, but, rather, an anticipated truth. Many news outlets reacted similarly, the New York Times deeming it to be a foreseeable symptom of an “exploitable, arbitrary, broken” admissions system. For many of us, it seems, this bribery scandal fit into our conventional understanding of how wealthy individuals have benefitted within the educational system.  

While the reality of this scandal is far removed from Australia, it reveals an unsurprising but uncomfortable truth that exists here also: that wealth cannot be discounted as translating into power when it comes to education. Closer to home, we see this power manifested in other forms: the Ramsay Centre’s influence over universities based on its financial promises, or increasing rates of contract cheating. In light of these issues, it is difficult to deny that our educational system has become one that allows power to be consolidated with those who can purchase it.

The funding of higher education has long been a politically contentious topic in Australia. Even as recently as December 2017, universities were hit with a funding freeze from the federal government, lifted six months ago, presumably in anticipation of the federal election. Despite the government’s fluctuating support, the Grattan Institute’s 2018 report on higher education in Australia noted that public universities “still receive more than half of their cash flow from [the] government”. However, universities are becoming “less reliant on government”, turning to other sources for support.

Institutions have harnessed these opportunities, such as the Ramsay Centre’s offering of financial endowments to universities to teach a degree in Western civilisations. When discussions of the highly controversial degree with ANU failed, the university stated that the centre had sought a level of control that interfered with the university’s academic autonomy.

It is logical that universities are orienting themselves to be as financially ‘efficient’ as possible.

Although negotiations with ANU ultimately fell through, there has been growing interest from various universities in the Centre’s offer. In recent months, the Centre finalised a deal with the University of Wollongong, from which UoW will receive over $50 million during the next eight years for providing the ‘Western civilisations’ degree. UoW’s version of the degree is even closer to the Centre’s original proposal, preceding discussions with ANU and USYD, raising questions of academic independence from financial privileges.

Last year, the federal government decreased its spending on tuition subsidies, signalling the first annual drop since 2003. Naturally universities are turning to private institutions for support. The University of Wollongong’s controversial choice to keep its year-long negotiations with the Ramsay Centre under wraps is exemplary of transparency being eroded, and learning falling subject to the rules of the private sector.   

Following from these concerns of funding, it is logical that universities are orienting themselves to be as financially ‘efficient’ as possible. But what does efficiency even mean in the context of higher education?

The use of the term ‘efficiency’ in regards to universities is a symptom of the commercialisation of institutions, as financial considerations become increasingly prioritised. For many universities, this has led to the over-bloated hiring of sessional staff and contingent contracts. These employees can be paid less, and often at an hourly rate. They are also easier to dismiss than tenured staff or academics with permanent positions.

The LH Martin Institute estimates that 50-70% of undergraduate teaching in Australian universities is performed by sessional staff. Universities see the financial advantage of hiring underpaid, overworked PhD students, without awarding them benefits or career security. Casual teaching staff are often budgeted mere minutes to mark a student’s assignment. In other cases, universities are more inclined to contract out to independent contractors rather than employees, resulting in lower control over quality.

Chris Lorenz points out that these shifts indicate a trend of universities adopting New Public Management (NPM) as a means of becoming more “businesslike”, by using business models that have worked in the private sector. Ultimately, this reduces students to consumers and universities to service providers, despite the consequences to teaching staff and the long-term effect on quality of teaching.

A key issue with the application of NPM to universities is that it awards an inordinate amount of power to managerial positions within the institution, in the name of efficiency. These positions have the purpose of maximising the university’s overall financial benefit. Overseers and administrators ensure that teaching staff carry out their tasks in a way that conforms to the institution’s values. There is little room for long-term foresight, development or criticism.

It is the idea that education at any level is a commodity.

Furthermore, the commercialisation of universities signals that the ‘product’ the student is paying for is a degree, not an education. Lorenz notes this deficiency of ‘educational consumerism’, stating that “economic reduction of education is remarkable because education does not by any stretch of the imagination resemble the purchase of a product to satisfy a specific need”.

Seeing education as a consumer transaction mistakenly markets the idea that students are customers with bargaining power, but this is rarely the case. Lack of response from administration to student feedback or dissatisfaction is a well-known and frustrating feeling. When UNSW proposed its new trimester system, it was met with considerable student backlash; university administration misleadingly marketed the trimester plan as being selected by a majority of the students surveyed, and demands to respond to student feedback were ignored. The university’s student magazine Tharunka reported that one benefit of the trimester plan was the ‘globalisation’ of the university to attract more international students, which would incur a financial benefit for the university.

Arguably, the corporatisation of universities has permeated a wider consciousness surrounding learning. It is the idea that education at any level is a commodity. The Operation Varsity Blues bribery scandal is simply one example of how wealth has become a means of ‘achieving’ within today’s educational model – a symptom of the growing conception that education (or educational achievements, rather) can be bought.

Disappointingly, this is nothing new. While the bribery scandal may have been on an unprecedented scale, there are other established legal means of using financial power to bend educational institutions to your will. We are rarely surprised when children of alumni or significant donors gain entrance to certain universities or colleges. The reality of students paying for contract cheating or parents who are able to send their children to private schools with prestigious university counselling services are commonplace signs of this privilege. To some degree, we are all aware of the power and privilege that is concentrated within certain pockets of society.

The myth of education as a means of achieving social mobility is further eroded by the realisation that if students are really consumers, then those with wealth will always have better bargaining power.

These beliefs are certainly being catered to with the massive uptick in the lucrative educational consulting industry, particularly in Australia and New Zealand, over recent years. Companies are able to market their services to aid students achieve university entrance, perpetuating and re-enforcing the mentality that purchasing a package, product or service, is ultimately a necessary prerequisite to success. The highly successful Crimson Education, for example, has had 20,000 students use its services since its founding in 2013. On average, an “all-inclusive” package from Crimson costs upwards of $10,000.

If a $10,000 package is truly a necessity to get into an elite university, and universities really are businesses, then education, or the commodity of a degree, is becoming a luxury that a select few can afford. I myself am a product of a private school education, a recipient of a more expensive ‘product’. And as much as I have benefitted from that, it is only at the greater cost of the widening inequality in education.  

If education is the way to create change through shaping future generations, how can that be done if it simply become a means for those who have always had power to hold on to it?

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