The Shifting Politics of Financialising Higher Education

Stream: Panel 47 - Public Policy & Social Justice: Higher Education Policy 
Date: Tuesday, 27 September 2016
Time: 4.00 pm – 5.30 pm


This paper explores the Australian innovation of income contingent student loans as a form of financialised social policy. The expansion of finance has been a defining feature of contemporary capitalism. Within the welfare state, two dynamics have seen a growing role for finance. The first involves the tensions between growing tax resistance from business and sustained support for existing and maturing social provision from the public. That tension generates a ‘politics of austerity’ in which financialised policies like Australia’s Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) can provide a potential response. The second involves demands from finance markets to ‘unlock’ the relatively secure savings of households. Most advanced in housing and pension policy, this form of financialisation has extended to student loan markets in the United States. Using this framework, the paper argues HECS combined elements of a tax and a loan in ways that confounded standard accounting principles and advanced a ‘Third Way’ politics of social expansion within neoliberalism. However, by shifting the form of policy towards a financial instrument, HECS changed the nature of political contest. The paper uses recent reports from think tanks and the Parliamentary Budget Office to explore how accounting frameworks are becoming an increasingly important site of policy contest and relates this to a broader trend evident in debates over tax expenditures and public private partnerships.


Ben Spies-Butcher (Presenter), Macquarie University
Ben Spies-Butcher lectures in Economy and Society in the Department of Sociology. Ben completed his PhD in Economics at the University of Sydney while working in the non-government sector on issues of human rights. His research focuses on the economics and politics of social and environmental policy, and political participation. He teaches courses on economic sociology and political sociology at undergraduate and post-graduate level. He is also a Research Associate at the Retirement Policy and Research Centre at the University of Auckland, and a board member of Shelter NSW.

Gareth Bryant (Presenter), University of Sydney
Gareth Bryant is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Economy. His research explores relationships between society and nature, capitalism and climate change and marketisation and public policy. Gareth’s research extends across the fields of heterodox economics, human geography, economic sociology and political ecology. He is interested in how political economy approaches to value relations and social contestation can help to understand the causes of, and inform/evaluate responses to, social and environmental challenges.