First published in the Press 3.2.16
Gather round current students and graduates – take a break from fretting over your (on average) $20,000 student debt which will hang around your neck for the next nine years – and let me tell you a story.
Because we might have been a bunch of feral, pinko-leftie student hippies in the early 1980s, but we were more than a little prescient about the ultimate cost of the introduction of student loans. I recall protesting about it when the idea was, much like you then, just a twinkle in someone’s eye.
In the olden days, students got what was pretty close to a literally free “free education”. Bursaries earned at high school covered our annual polytech and student fees, plus we received (I’m pretty sure I have the numbers right) a living allowance of $36 a week.
Which may not sound princely, but room and board at a student hostel came to $28 a week, and Fairhall River Claret was $4 a bottle. So with a part-time job and summer work – often via tax-payer funded community schemes – you could afford to splash out on course books and an occasional muesli bar.
The wonder of it all was that, at the end of your certificate or diploma or degree, there was no tab to be paid. You were free and clear. There were choices and possibilities. The world was your metaphorical oyster. Which seemed entirely logical – that had been the whole point of investing several years of your young life in this whole higher education malarkey.
So without a bill being handed to me at graduation, I can’t tell you what my education cost in dollar terms. Nor can I tell you what my education has been worth to me in dollar terms. I have no idea if anyone has paid me more than they would have if I didn’t have a couple of bits of paper framed on my mother’s wall. It’s never really come up.
But I can tell you that one of my bits of paper taught me how to read – critically, and with pleasure – and the other taught me how to write. Both of them taught me how to think and ask questions, and feel a sense of civic and community responsibility. I can also live for long periods on variations of cheese on toast and I’ve seen how you can make a bong out of an apple.
I am telling you this because I want you to know that there was a time when you only had to have brains to engage in tertiary study, not money; when the idea of being 23 and $20,000 in debt was not ok; when the general consensus was that all taxpayers would pay for the best brains to get as much education as they could stuff into them because we’d all benefit from having well-educated people in the neighbourhood; when education was a way out of poverty, not into it.
And I want you to know that it would not be unreasonable to ask for that again.