Education as a commons: why we should all share in the picnic of knowledge

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As a secondary school student I attended a public school. The school itself had a number of ‘temporary' classrooms that had been there for some 40 years. The gym was average, the playground large and the library a great place to hide in when avoiding classes. I thought all schools were like that until one day we played a game of rugby against Scots College. It was like being faced with Crocodile Dundee, “That's not a school — this is a school”.

There is no doubt that there are serious disparities between schools across Australia. Not just between public and private schools, but across different regions. There is also serious under investment in our public education system, which Australia will suffer from in the long term.

So what do we do about it? In issue 86 of New Matilda's magazine, Corin McCarthy raised the possibility of a voucher system as a way of solving this problem. The argument is a simple one; parents are given a voucher whose value is subject to ‘means testing'. Parents use their vouchers to send their children to the school they believe will provide the best education. This establishes a market environment that promotes competition between schools, which vie with each other for students and their vouchers.

Limitations

There are a number of important limitations to the voucher system but I will only highlight a few of them. To begin with, when opening up schools to competition, there are some schools who are already ahead in the assets stake. Without a doubt parents will push to place their children in these schools. This means we are likely to end up with a tiered system of schools, with the most disadvantaged left behind.

Thanks to Scratch.

In addition, the better placed schools may also request ‘top-ups' for students to be accepted. If such a process is allowed, then demand will dramatically increase the entry cost of these schools. If such top-ups are not allowed, some parents may find enterprising ways around the rules (just ask Ian Schubert at the National Rugby League and his attempts to monitor the salary cap). This further aggravates the potential for a tiered schooling system.

The third limitation is that the focus of the school is dramatically altered from providing quality education to drawing in consumers. In the words of McCarthy, schools become “consumer-driven”, whereas I believe they should be student and education driven.

If we allow education to be commodified then schools will be under pressure to ‘sell themselves' more — but successful marketing is no guarantee of quality. Teachers will be encouraged to ensure that grades ‘look good' and may face undue pressure to ensure that students ‘not performing' do better. The research of Brian Jacob and Steven Levitt (http://pricetheory.uchicago.edu/levitt/Papers/JacobLevitt2003.pdf ) shows that ‘incentivisation' can quickly lead to teachers employing less than honest means to achieve results.

Those schools that cannot compete will have to find alternative means to draw in funds. This is likely to result in two things. The first will be advertising inside schools to capture that closed market — something already happening to a limited extent, but likely to increase in schools driven by the profit motive. Secondly, the school is likely to begin cost-cutting exercises, with the students ultimately suffering.

The funding model endorsed by the voucher system is based on the idea that competition works best and that a consumer-driven market should be the central mechanism in organising society. While there is no doubt that the market mechanism is a powerful tool in organising resources, it has both limitations and failings. Neither education nor students should be considered as commodities, open to the whims of the market.

These criticisms of the voucher system are in no way meant to defend the status quo. In fact, it is clear that Australia under-invests in its education system in all levels, and there is a need to dramatically change this.

I would like to propose an alternative way to consider education, with a model that encourages cooperation rather than competition. This is the model understood as the commons.

Reclaiming the commons

The word commons – like taxation – almost seems to have been lost from our political language. Because the word has its origins in the traditional use of shared lands by villagers for foraging, hunting, and planting crops, we usually think of the commons as the elements of the natural environment that we all share. Forests, the atmosphere and fisheries, are each aspects of the environment that historically no-one owns but we all enjoy.

There are also institutional commons – publicly provided infrastructures that serve the broader public interest. Examples of institutional commons include universities, health centres, water delivery and sewerage systems, and even public space.

Commons can even be thought of as the social bonds shared by a community, and can include the need for trust, cooperation and human relationships. These are the very foundations of what makes ‘a community' rather than merely a group of individuals living in close proximity to each other.

There are some important characteristics evident in all categories of commons. To begin with, real commons should be thought of as neither public nor private, but are often facilitated by governments on our behalf. Commons are inherited from past generations and any governing body holds them in trust for the public as well as for future generations.

Commons can be abundant and if managed properly, can overcome scarcity. Scarcity is the defining characteristic of economic systems based on competition. The scarcer a commodity is, the higher its market value and the greater the competition to access it. In contrast, the commons can invert this relationship by encouraging both abundance and cooperation. To achieve this, a community must cooperate and each member must carry out their individual responsibilities to ensure commons are prosperous and accessible to all.

Think about it like a picnic with friends. If everyone pitches in a bit of food, we have a feast. If someone is having a hard time and cannot contribute, then we share with them until they can. However, if ‘guests' start to ‘free-ride' just because they feel no need to contribute or no affinity with this specific group of people, then the feast dries up. This is because people either withhold their contribution or horde as much as they can to eat later.

Education as a commons

We can think of education at all levels — primary, secondary or tertiary — as a commons. There is no doubt that education plays a unique role in our democratic society. We learn to discover knowledge, share ideas, interact, become citizens and challenge authority to ensure that we keep our politicians and elites accountable.

A shared education with students that have different experiences, cultural backgrounds, incomes and religions can be a feast, as long as each member contributes and shares equally. However, as soon as people start pulling out – because they can or simply because they feel no affinity to the group – then these shared spaces of education begin to disappear and we are all left worse off.

The rampant commodification of education is essentially an enclosure of the commons as we no longer share our learning but compete as consumers for limited places in elite schools. The scholarly ethic is replaced by the market ethic. Through neglect, mismanagement and misinformation, parents feel that private schools are superior to public institutions. Parents with funds often remove their children from public schools and the education of all suffers — both those in public schools as they lose assets and also those students in private schools whose education is limited by their exposure to students in similar positions.

In a recent article, Malcolm Knox (2006) eloquently describes the distress a parent feels when making decisions about schooling for their children. While the voucher model seems to offer parents more choice, it ultimately leads to the concentration of resources into a few schools which are already well funded, and limits parents and their children to one, unequal, competitive system. Instead we need to properly fund education and ensure that we can all benefit from the feast of education.

Funding alone is not enough, for the government along with schools need to undertake outreach programs to bring in parents, non-government organisations, businesses and other groups to take a more active role in schools. This is a process, however, that should be facilitated by those with experience in teaching and education, and not be subject to populist whims (such as those rallying against ‘postmodernism'). If we are all encouraged to contribute to the education commons then the system and its students will thrive.

There is only one way to protect the commons of education and that is for all of us to ensure that it thrives. That means that both federal and state governments must meet their responsibilities to facilitate the commons of education on behalf of current and future generations. I am not arguing that the commons should be enforced. But neither should governments stand at the edge of the picnic and encourage those participating to walk away from their community.

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