Paul Little at large
Paul Little is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Paul Little: Money makes for bad education

Universities are, in fact, driven by a profit motive that often overrides other priorities. Photo / File
Universities are, in fact, driven by a profit motive that often overrides other priorities. Photo / File

News that Canterbury University is throwing $3,000 at students with top marks to enrol down south has been reported as though there was something unusual about a tertiary institution acting like a personnel recruitment agency on steroids.

Universities are, in fact, driven by a profit motive that often overrides other priorities.

Before students had to pay fees, things were different. I was one of the lucky last who were paid to go to university in the 1970s and received an excellent education from dedicated people who were focused on teaching.

When I went back to study 30 years later, under the user-pays regime, all was topsy-turvy. The young students around me saw themselves as customers who had paid for something - a qualification - and expected it to be delivered to them.

As for the academics, it seemed they had been taught the customer was always right.

In the 1970s and before, everyone got offered money to go to university. The government paid for tertiary education until free-market political ideology required students to fork out for it.

At which point there was good money to be made, and this encouraged the proliferation of institutions that offered more and more courses.

I won't say some were of dubious merit because "dubious" implies doubt and there is no doubt many were mediocre and irrelevant. They wasted students' - or their parents' - money and stole years of their lives that might have been spent learning something useful.

This is a topic about which there has been rumblings in various media over the past few weeks.

If you were really stuck for something to hold a commission of inquiry into, you couldn't do better than inquire into how professional educators are still allowed to take money from children in return for something of no value.

The genie of user-pays education can't be put back in its bottle, but it's salutary to remind ourselves what we lost when universities were transformed from places of learning into money-making machines.

Journalists, in general, are scrupulous in our use of language, or at least we attempt to be.

If we have one fault, though, it's a tendency to latch on to the latest buzz phrase and drive it into the ground. If I hear one more reference to something "jumping the shark", so help me ...

In general we care about words because it is only by using them correctly that we can do our job. Unfortunately, this tends to make us among the most self-righteous pedants going.

We obsess, for instance, about the use of words such as literally.

Literally has long been used informally for emphasis. "It literally took my breath away" seldom refers to an experience of asphyxiation, and more probably means the speaker was very surprised.

Hitherto, many of us followed the rule that if something was literally true, you didn't need to use the word; and if it wasn't literally true you shouldn't use it. Unless, you needed to explain to someone that you released a moggy from a sack, in which case, you literally "let the cat out of the bag".

So when it was learned that the incorrect use of literally was to be acknowledged in the Oxford English Dictionary, the pedants panicked.

Unfortunately, that reaction shows a misunderstanding of how English works, which is the very picture of "in mysterious ways".

That's why flammable and inflammable mean the same thing; sanction can mean to permit or restrict; and left can mean "still there" or "gone away".

The battle to protect "literally" in real life was lost long ago. Having its widely used, though not hitherto sanctioned, meaning legitimised is just a case of our language doing what it does best - adapting.

- Herald on Sunday

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