Governing Perceptions: Investigating politicians views on higher education

Being an election year, and in the wake of the Gonski Review, education will be hot on the political agenda during 2013. Higher education will very likely enter the debate also. A major focus of the Government has been, after all, to have forty percent of 25-34 year olds attain at least a bachelor’s degree, ultimately revealing the perception that higher education is an invaluable social and economic good. Given such a view, one must ask why do these politicians view higher education in such a way? Indeed, more generally, what exactly are politicians’ attitudes towards higher education?

Dr Anthony Potts, Senior Lecturer at the School of Education at The University of Adelaide, seeks to answer such questions.

Surprisingly, understanding the attitude’s of those that debate/enact policies and allocate funding for higher education is only now an emerging field in Australia, but with a longer history in Europe and internationally. As a contributor to this research, Potts has studied the perceptions of politicians in the UK, the US and Australia, asking questions such as ‘what do politicians actually want from universities?’, ‘what role do politicians believe universities should have?’, and ‘what influences or governs these perceptions?’. Understanding these attitudes can potentially give us an insight into what our leaders believe and why they behave the way they do concerning higher education.

There are a range of views and factors that affect such perceptions. Interestingly, having children enrolled in higher educational programs is a major factor, with their experiences taken to reflect the state of their institution and possibly even the system as a whole, the personal experiences of politicians is another. Constituents’ attitudes towards students can also govern perceptions of local representatives, either positively (e.g. due to increased student populations bolstering economic activity) or negatively (e.g. due to student accommodation pushing up rent values).

Perhaps unbelievable to some cynical academics, Potts characterises many of the politicians he has interviewed as very sophisticated and intelligent people. He has come across politicians whom have a very clear idea of what it is they want from higher education. For instance, there is the example of a Latino-American politician from Arizona who wants to solve immigration issues through higher education; another politician from Arizona wanted to create a technology hub akin to Silicon Valley. In the UK, he finds that there is a very strong perception shared amongst politicians that education is the primary driving force behind social mobility.

Despite this diversity, Potts finds that the consensus seems to be that a sense of utility is paramount to the politicians interviewed – academic and critical faculties are still encouraged, but structural strength and economic growth (and the employability of graduates) is taken to be vital. This is perhaps good news for impending graduates!

Provided that education is such an integral aspect of our social and political lives, it is baffling that research into the perceptions of politicians towards it is only now an emerging field. Through it we can begin to understand why politicians think and act like they do in regards to higher education. Particularly in Australia, it offers the potential for us to gain an understanding of Government policy and why it wants so many of us to have parchments we can hang over our mantle pieces.


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