DON AITKIN. Whose universities are they, anyway?

Roger Scott’s extended rebuttal of Ross Gittins’s excoriation of ‘money-grubbing’ universities, and the publication of three books about the recent past and possible future of higher education, suggest that all is not well in academe. While all has never, at least since the end of the second world war, been well in academe (the AVCC first used the word ‘crisis’ in 1947), may be true that the level of tension within higher education is notably high. The three books are Glyn Davis’s The Australian Idea of a University, Stuart Macintyre’s No End of a Lesson, and my own Critical Mass. How the Commonwealth got into funding research in universities. All were published at the end of 2017.  

‘The university’ is not a term with a single or simple meaning, and is almost undefinable. Just about all who have written about it have at least attended it as a student, and most have also served as academic staff. Their perspective is understandably coloured by their experiences. Their sense of what a university should be probably reflects their happiest experiences. What came afterwards was never as a good. Most of those who now have to deal with universities from outside the cloisters also attended the institutions as students, but their experiences were usually not as enjoyable, since academics on the whole favour and nurture those students whom they see as future academics.

Moreover, the scale of higher education has changed greatly, even in my own time. There were six universities and 13,000 students in 1939, and when I enrolled at the University of New England in 1954, there were perhaps twice as many students, plus a seventh university, the ANU. In 2017 there were 43 accredited universities, plus a small private university and two off-shoots of foreign universities. The research funds provided to the sector through the ARC and the NHMRC alone were nudging $2 billion. More than a million students were supported by more than 100,000 staff of all kinds. The large number of overseas students provided fees and living costs whose sum made higher education a major player in Australia’s foreign earnings. In 1954 only two per cent of 18-year-olds attended an institution of higher education; today it is the intended destination for two thirds of all school-leavers. When I went to UNE I almost disappeared from my former social scene: I was ‘at uni’, gone from sight into a world that only students knew. I never returned to the old scene. Today universities are part of the mainstream of Australian society, and students are hard at work not only in higher education, but in restaurants, bars, night clubs and elsewhere. They need the income.

Several factors caused the continuing postwar growth. One was wealth. Australia kept growing in wealth and some of that wealth, channeled through government, built universities and later colleges, and some of the rest allowed more discretionary income to families. Parents wanted more education for their children, girls no less than boys. Human knowledge (basically, what academics published in journals) multiplied and multiplied, and that happened professions began to demand that their entrants know more, through having obtained a university degree. Relative status claims, Australia’s main social cleavage, ensured that one profession after another lobbied to have their role in society authenticated by a proper degree.

The universities that started in colonial days were poor, and lived off government grants, student fees and philanthropy. There was not much of the latter, save in Perth. Today’s universities find their biggest sources of income through Commonwealth grants, overseas student fees, and research money. Though they occupy the same sites as was the case when they began life, the reality of university life is quite different, and it is the differences that cause the criticism and the tensions. Universities are never the same, no matter what their appearance suggests.

It is not clear who owns universities, or who is really accountable for them. After President Eisenhower retired from office in 1948 he became the President of Columbia University. The story goes that he invited the senior staff to a meeting at which he said how pleased he was to meet the university’s employees. There was a stunned silence, at the end of which the senior dean replied, ‘Mr President, we are the University!’ The notion that academic staff are the real core/owners/essence of the university is widely held by academic staff, especially in the older established universities. It is true that both Oxford and Cambridge were founded by scholars, who met together, attracted students, and sought bequests to enable buildings and scholarships. And they were successful, too. But neither university was given annual grants by the monarchs of the time, and no monarch established a review to see whether they were doing what they should have been doing, whatever that was. Oxford and Cambridge are not a sensible model for Australia.

These days students have a keen sense that they are the real university, on the ground that they pay fees, and that without them and their fees there would be no need of the academic staff, or indeed of the university as a place. I guess most vice-chancellors have had the experience of a student’s coming to see them with a complaint about the quality of teaching, or an examination outcome, in a particular course or unit. My example pointed out that he had paid $3,000, or whatever the amount was, and the quality of what he found was execrable. There were available processes he could have used rather than come to me, but I explained to him that the University’s current value, all up, was then about $200 million, and its annual budget was a tad less. His $3,000 was not, all things considered, a straw that might break a camel’s back. Then we got down to what could be done in his particular case. Though that one was solved pretty easily, there is little doubt that lots of our students, and their parents, think that they have been short-changed. In particular, many object to the importance that ‘research’ has for staff, over ‘teaching’, the latter being what they see as the core purpose of the institution.

The Commonwealth, the real provider, knows that universities are important, and that research is important, but has no idea, really, how to make anything better. From its perspective higher education is simply tertiary education, the next stage after school. The Treasury and Finance are probably united in the view that too much money goes into university coffers and is badly used, but unless the Government wants to really regulate the sector, what we have will remain a stand-off, productive of criticism, tension, laments for past golden ages, and an instrumental perspective from almost everyone. The Dawkins changes in the late 1980 are unlikely to be repeated: there is no unanimity about what changes are needed, and no forthright and audacious Minister who could bring the changes off.

It is well to remember, when talking about the ‘real’ university, that the vast majority of students see the university as a pathway to the job they want after graduation. They did seventy years ago, too.

Don Aitkin was the Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Canberra from 1991 to 2002, and before that the foundation Chair of the Australian Research Council.

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5 Responses to DON AITKIN. Whose universities are they, anyway?

  1. Don Aitkin says:

    Michael (1) Yes, you’re quite right. But of course it is universities which define what the standard is. Lowered standards tend to be scuttlebutt from within, and I know of no serious examination of their accuracy. I do know that foreign students need high levels of English proficiency if their enrolment is to be satisfactory. Those who don’t have it at the beginning struggle, though their English is better at the end of the course.

    Michael (2) My discussion with him was not a squelch. He simply had no sense of the real costs of the university system, and when I explained what they were, he dropped the cost matter, and we got down to what he could do about the units which he had failed, mostly, I think, because of poor English. He did finally graduate.

  2. Michael D. Breen says:

    Rereading the article I have two further thoughts. 1.I have always found it strange that the place where you are most likely to find an untrained teacher is at a university. Though universities collect money for teaching I have never known a university where staff were trained for that purpose. The presumption at all tertiary levels seems to have been that if you had a lot of experience as a student you could teach.
    2. This I do not get. Don says, “My example pointed out that he had paid $3,000, or whatever the amount was, and the quality of what he found was execrable. There were available processes he could have used rather than come to me, but I explained to him that the University’s current value, all up, was then about $200 million, and its annual budget was a tad less. His $3,000 was not, all things considered, a straw that might break a camel’s back”. This sounds derisive of a student complaint on financial grounds even if the complaint should not have got to the VC. But students need to learn how to use a university and get value for their “meager” investment, surely. $3 k might be small beer compared to $200 mil but so what other than the squelch?

  3. Michael D. Breen says:

    Don, I thought one function of universities in which the community owns a stake is that of certification. So that if a university graduates a student the public has a right to consider the student competent in their particular area. There have been several reports about universities needing to lower standards for fee paying foreign students and staff members being told ‘just pass them’. Some of the teaching is subsidized by the taxes of workers who will always earn less and never enjoy the campus life of a university student but make an act of faith in a certified graduate.
    Another bother I have is universities being places where you can go and do a course in I.T, or marketing etc without ever being educated in the ways of thinking of the western world. Once medicine and law required an arts degree before and as a basis for learning a specialty.

  4. Don Aitkin says:

    Mary, sorry for the delay. The most proficient students in any class reveal themselves early, and are encouraged to do more of the same. There will be a ‘distinction’ or ‘honours’ stream that they enter. They get high distinctions, and are groomed for the honours year, and then for postgraduate work, PhDs and an academic future. They see more of the academic staff than the ‘pass’ students, and receive lots of encouragement.
    Different courses and different universities have different procedures, but what I’ve set out is the commonly things happen.

    I don’t think universities do, or even should, aim to make their graduates the best possible persons they could be for the betterment of the world. Too many assumptions (for example, about the betterment of the world). In my day I argued that we (UC) were a professional school (a collection of professional schools) and out task was to turn out proficient, knowledge-based altruistic professionals. That’s about the closest I came to your goal. It takes a long time for most people to grow up into a real adult, and it certainly doesn’t happen on graduation.

    Interesting thoughts, and thank you.

  5. Mary Tehan says:

    Thanks for this article on whose Universities are they anyway?

    “Academics on the whole favour and nurture those students whom they see as future academics” …

    As the grand ignoramus on how Universities work, I’m left to ask: How does that work – academics favouring students who will be future academics? Who decides that … an Academic Board? … a Research committee? … Lecturers? … Politicians turned academics? … a specific, Professional academic discipline? … who?

    Most students I know use University as a stepping stone in their career … so the notion of “performance” is acceptable and encouraged. But what if a University has a different “goal” or “Vision/Mission”? For example, to make a student the best possible person they can be for the betterment of the world they live in? “Performance” in this context is both grubby and humiliating. Perhaps these differences need to be pointed out to students as they apply for Courses at different Universities … they can then become the “Rules of Engagement” with “outcomes” (not just “outputs”) more clearly understood by all parties. Just a suggestion from a simple soul.

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