Values, Education and Engaging Young Australia

The debate over values and principles is a crucial one for young Australians. The values that underpin policy and government provide direction for the future of our nation that today’s young people will experience for the majority of their lives. Young people must be engaged in this discussion to ensure that policy builds substantive foundations for tomorrow while addressing the issues of today.

A Limited Experience of Differing Values
The shift in values in recent decades explored in a number of the papers in the Values & Principles Section is, for young people, not simply a shift but the fabric of their entire conscious experience of Australian society. The faith in the market’s capacity to create both prosperity and equality that has dominated Australian politically ideology is the sole experience of my generation, under Howard and in the deregulation and privatisation of the Hawke / Keating years. The belief that opportunity is fostered in the private not the public sphere is the norm not a change in culture

The Coalition’s victory in 1996 was nearly nine years ago – the entire politically aware period of many young people’s lives. Those years have been stamped indelibly on many young Australians creating increasing apathy towards politics, growing social conservatism or, more rarely, resistance and activism against government policies. Young people are increasingly isolated by a dominant ideology that emphasises the individual and the family rather than the community. At the same time, the pressures on individual young people are multiple and very often originate within families hurt by income inequalities or split by divorce.

Education & Values
The values of fairness, equality, decency and respect resonate powerfully within Australian society. This is shown in the values espoused by Senator Lyn Allison for the Democrats ("Values of the Australian Democrats" The Centre for Policy Development 15 June 2005), by the call for Labor to ‘paint a new vision of government’ from Julia Gillard ("Labor – Themes & Values" The Centre for Policy Development 8 June 2005) and by other papers at The Centre for Policy Development. Yet these values are easily manipulated, difficult to define and easily manipulated and re-defined to meet the needs of the politics of the day, as Richard Denniss argues ("Words Are Bullets" The Centre for Policy Development 7 June 2005).

Ensuring our ability to avoid manipulation is one reason education is the single most important issue for young people in Australia today, one intimately connected with values and principles. Education is both an area in which those values are directly experienced by young people and the key to a future in which those values reach their full potential. The recent changes to higher education legislation including the increase in costs for HECS places of up to 25% and an increase in the number of places available to full-fee paying local students brings the question of values sharply to bear in an area where they should be celebrated rather than eroded.

The Nelson reforms undermine the notions of equality and fairness fundamental to our society. ‘Fairness’ is not creating easier entrance to higher education degrees for students with wealthy parents – especially for degrees with high graduate income levels, such as law. Equality is not the intended result of this legislation. The children of wealthy Australians having more opportunity and an easier path to entering highly competitive degrees with greater potential for perpetuating family wealth is inconsistent with valuing equality.

Similarly, the proposed VSU legislation – under the banner of reducing costs and increasing choice for students – will fundamentally undermine the broad range of opportunities and support that all students currently have at Australian universities. These opportunities are ones that give many young Australians access to volunteer programs, political experience, sport and extra-curricular activities that encourage leadership and engender respect for and decency towards others.

All educational institutions should be places where values leading to a better and more equal Australia are not only taught but also manifested in the access to and conduct of those institutions. The immediate consequences of higher education reform – reducing opportunities for less wealthy Australians; increasing the financial burden of graduates; and simultaneously decreasing the value of the university experience through the erosion of non-academic activities and support structures – overshadow its broader impact: instilling a distorted understanding and experience of fairness and equality damaging to the fabric of Australian society.

Engaging Young Australia
With equality and fairness defined in such nonsensical terms it is no surprise that so many young people in Australia feel disconnected and apathetic towards the political process and the place of values in society. Without clear forums for engagement with policy or the values debate and coupled with government that is increasingly dissembling, opaque and inaccessible, young people in general often feel that these areas are outside their influence.

This must not be the case. Apathy is not the natural inclination of young people faced with questions that concern their future – the environment, sustainability, education, health care, welfare and the very question of what we, as a nation and as Australians, hold as fundamental values. Apathy is learned through the lack of opportunity to see input result in change. More forums need to be made available to young people to combat this alienation.

Steps must be taken to engage young people in the political process more fully through developing awareness of government, providing forums for young voices to be heard and encouraging youth participation in policy development. Schools should ensure better education in government and civics so that young people reach voting age with a clearer understanding of government and their own role and responsibility as citizens. Tertiary education must be made more equally accessible and less financially burdensome so that opportunity is not unfairly limited for the less wealthy. University campuses should be better informed and engaged through recruitment of young people onto policy development teams and commissions. Communication networks should be established to raise awareness of issues within university communities, especially through town-hall meetings that would stimulate young people, reduce disconnection from national and local issues and provide valuable insight for the convenors. Government and other groups could work with student organizations to gain valuable input into policy and to gain communication access to large numbers of students.

More public forums could also be made readily available to young people to participate in policy debate. Think tanks and policy groups could actively include young people on the full range of policy issues and not simply limit involvement to traditional "youth" areas such as education and drug prevention. Magazines such as The Centre for Policy Development can lead the way by soliciting contributions by young people on the issues under debate and by devoting specific space to issues of particular relevance to young people. Communication could be improved by engaging youth media such as street press, music and lifestyle magazines and online forums to inform young people about important issues relevant to them and to Australia as a whole.

Young people must be brought into the continual process of articulating our societies values and forming policy on a meaningful level if apathy is to cease being the norm and engagement to become it. Values should look to capture both the traditions and spirit of a society but also provide vision for the future. It is for this reason that young people should play a greater role in the articulation of values and their manifestation in policy.

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