Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Golden Age Of Studybludging

"[..] you are a playboy and a dilettante, with no real desire to ever work, to hold a job, to repay society for suffering your existence.  You are an opportunist.  You are irresponsible. You are a drone."

For the source of the quote, read on.

This article is just a shortish (by my standards) semi-flippant comment on something that interests me in the current Budget debates.

One of the most contentious Coalition decisions in the current Budget debate is a proposal to not allow unemployed people under the age of 30 access to unemployment benefits until they have been unemployed for six months.  The time for which benefits can't be accessed drops by one month for every year a person has spent in the workforce, although how this is calculated if a person has spent many years semi-employed, self-employed or intermittently employed is not yet clear.  Many, including me, have found this policy to be unbelievably nasty at first look.  On Twitter I described this policy as worse than everything else in this and many other budgets put together.

On that ABC program I rarely watch (because I dislike talking-head panel shows and bear-baiting in general) Treasurer Hockey was asked a direct question about what happens to someone who finishes their education, having not been in the workforce, and simply cannot get a job.  The questioner - who spoke very well indeed - assumed, as many would, that the result for such a person would be six months with no income.



But Hockey said he did not accept the premise of what was being put to him, because a person under 30 should be either earning or learning, and there would be new funded course options available to them that had not been there before:

Aidan Johnstone (TAS): I already established that these people have gone through education.  They've gotten skills that should lead to jobs that are ordinarily there; it just happens that it's a downturn at the moment so the jobs aren't available.  So they've already [..] learnt.

Hockey: So you're saying every unemployed young person in Tasmania is already skilled up?

Johnstone: That's not what I'm saying at all. What I'm saying is that there are people like that, who do have the skills, and have just been unfortunate, and they're being punished by this change of the rules.

Hockey: Well I don't accept that.  I don't accept that. And the reason why, if I can explain the policy: If you are under the age of 25, instead of getting Newstart, you're going to get Youth Allowance, and we're going to say to you that we will pay, taxpayers will pay, for you to undertake a course.  Now that is hugely important, and for the first time, concessional loans if you're undertaking a TAFE course, a diploma.  But if you are working (as in studying) then you will need to qualify for Youth Allowance for studying, or you will be able to claim an exemption in relation to rules on Newstart, because the bottom line is there are rules that ensure that someone under the age of 30 is not going to be treated punitively if they are making an effort to go to work or study.  

(Emphasis mine).

So what happens if a person finishes their normal course of studies and then some, hasn't been in the workforce, and still can't find a job?  Perhaps they've been unlucky; maybe they were mis-advised and picked the wrong degree(s), or maybe they're just not all that vocationally-minded.  There are two alternatives here.

The first and most natural is that Hockey is being evasive, and that just as now, young people will have a finite amount of study/training they can complete on government benefits, then they will have to wait six months for income if they have finished all the degrees and courses Centrelink will let them do on benefits and can't find work.  The range of learning options may increase, but not to the point of guaranteeing someone without a job always has an education option.  Of course if this is true, then what we have is a government willing to force people who have finished all their possible education options and have no money, to live in homeless shelters and depend on charity for food and clothing, while supposedly being able to look for work effectively in such a condition, only to move on to 25-hour-per-week Work For The Dole once they actually get it at all. Such an approach would rip up the philosophical basis of unemployment payments that has been in place since the days of Chifley and Menzies, and no wonder it's being treated with derision and disbelief.

But the other alternative is that Hockey is completely telling the truth. I italicise that because the consequences are more startling than the very notion. Over the last few decades, students have faced quite stringent restrictions on how many Youth Allowance or AUSTUDY supported university courses they could take.  The usual system involved a number of levels of courses, such that you could take one course's worth of allowance at each level.  There was a certain degree of leeway - for instance for a three-year degree you could get an extra six months if studying only semester-based subjects, or a full extra year if studying at least one year-long subject. Also, you could transfer the leeway to the start of a second degree. Generally, depending on what you did, the lifetime of a student's financial support from the government could be about six years, and while the payment levels have always been pitiable, top-up loans schemes enabled students to live quite reasonably then repay money if they ever reached average weekly income earnings.

In my own case, when I wasn't able to finish one Honours degree by the deadline because of a medical problem that struck at the crunch time for writing up my first intended thesis*, I ended up suspending that course (and it remains suspended to this day) then starting a different Honours degree in a different discipline, because a Graduate Diploma was a different "level" of course to a routine Honours. An extra year of Austudy was much more attractive than finishing a thesis late and then having no income while waiting to see if I could pick up a late PhD scholarship in my original intended field.

The system may have become a bit looser and more subjective now, and it seems there are some ways for those who are content to collect endless degrees on government benefits to string it out a bit longer than used to be the case.  But from what I read of the current system, it falls far below the standard of a student being able to study and train continually for 12 years without having to worry about their study time running out and without having to satisfy the Social Security Act's "activity test" for unemployed jobseekers.

Is this seriously what Treasurer Hockey is proposing? 12 years of a young person's life where they can study or train as much as they like on the public purse - even if they don't need to do it at all for career reasons but just enjoy the student lifestyle, the endless holidays, the poking of fun at inept student politicians, the slack contact hours, oh and every now and then fancy spending a year at TAFE or training to be a motorcycle mechanic just to see how the other 90% lives?  The policy might not just be unbelievably cruel, but for those who don't mind having several years of random detritus on their CV it could actually be rather generous.  Joe Hockey could be the architect of a new Golden Age of Studybludging, building a future nation of young Fred Cassidys.

(Cassidy, the protagonist of Roger Zelazny's Doorways In The Sand, is a talented student who studybludges off a conditional stipend from his cryogenically frozen uncle by changing majors over the course of 13 years so that he precariously avoids graduating. The quote at the head of this article was not Kevin Andrews addressing a constituent; rather, it was Cassidy's academic consellor.)

No more free rides?  Sheesh, for many wannabe professional students, twelve years of untrammeled welfare-subsidised education before you even start your PhD would be the biggest free ride of them all!

Seriously, someone should ask the Government if it really is its intention that people who cannot find jobs (or aren't looking) can be continually in study or training from ages 18-29.  If it is, then perhaps stating so in advance would have done a lot to cushion perceptions that this policy is remarkably horrible.  But on the other hand, it would have left the government open to accusations of just replacing "dole-bludging" with studybludging.

There is a lot to be said about the pros and cons of letting people under the age of 30 take as many courses at public expense as they like.  Obviously, it means that mainly those who have jobs more or less lined up at the end of one course will enter the workforce; the rest will choose to keep studying rather than even looking for work at their own expense, and could end up in education for years more than necessary.  You'll end up with a lot of people whose CVs are even more ridiculous than mine, going into the workforce seriously for the first time in their late 20s or early 30s.  Probably this is already a perverse consequence of the current system - being on unemployment benefits is so unpleasant and in some circles stigmatised that many potential recipients in high-unemployment areas choose to endlessly study instead, even if it pays less.  My own home state (Tasmania) is awash with people with PhDs (some of them even dual PhDs) for this very reason.

But before we look at this too closely, we need to know if this is actually the government's intent, or if its intentions are just to hide some radical social engineering behind a veneer of expanded opportunity to learn and a false claim that no-one willing to learn more will be left without support.  It may all be academic anyway, with the outcry against this policy resulting in Labor, the Greens and PUP all threatening to kill it in the Senate, but it would be nice to know exactly what the government proposes.

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* The Impacts Of Moral Scepticism On Political Philosophy.  Knew you'd be fascinated.  (No sorry, you can't read it; not in this universe anyway.)

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