ALLAN PATIENCE. Re-imagining Australia’s higher education sector

Oct 23, 2019

Recently a report commissioned by Education Minister, Dan Tehan, recommended a tightening of the criteria by which any tertiary education institution can call itself a university.

The report recommends that to be able to legitimately claim the title, tertiary institutions must demonstrate “an assured level of research and teaching” while progressively increasing the quality and output of world-class research they produce. This makes sense if we want our universities to continue to rank highly on influential global indexes.

However, if they are adopted by government, these recommendations could jeopardise the existence of some smaller and/or regional universities already struggling to meet existing teaching and research standards. Their plight raises a number of important questions. Should they be amalgamated into larger, more “successful” universities? Should they be transformed into liberal education colleges focusing, first and foremost, on teaching and skills training? Should they be closed down altogether? Or is it time to comprehensively re-imagine the higher education sector in Australia?

Higher education policies over the past fifty years or so have been pushing Australia’s universities to conform to governments’ increasingly instrumental economic agendas. They have been required to enrol large numbers of students while operating within an often contradictory and confusing regulatory environment and government cuts to their funding. This has resulted in less than happy outcomes.

Today, academic faculty members are under relentless pressure to publish their research in “world-class” academic journals while demonstrating its “impact” on society and the economy (preferably the latter). They are required to perform sundry administrative tasks and “engage” with communities outside the university. In addition to all this as they are obliged to shoulder ever-increasing teaching loads.

At the same time, a very large majority of today’s university students work in one or more part-time (or even full-time) jobs, jamming classes into their crammed schedules while accruing sizeable, long-term debts from loan schemes they have to access to pay their fees. While the sector has benefitted from large numbers of overseas students enrolling in their degree programs, research has shown that there is little interaction between overseas and local students. The divide between them often amounts to a form of apartheid on our campuses.

Moreover, many of the important administrative arrangements in universities have been managerialised, with an executive class appropriating policy and decision-making functions that were once the preserve of faculty members. The result has been a serious decline in morale, among staff and students, across all the universities. For most people working and studying in Australia’s higher education sector today, the university experience is rarely a happy or fulfilling one.

Two especially pernicious outcomes for the higher education sector have been: (i) the development of a hierarchy of universities across the country; (ii) a dull uniformity of university cultures across the country. The Group of Eight (Go8) universities are at the top of the pile of 43 universities over-all. They dominate the research funding available from governments and external sources and they tend to attract a majority of the “brightest and best” students and academic staff. The other universities try with varying degrees of success to compete with the G08, mainly by aping them. The result is that there is very little diversity across the Australian higher education sector, just more of the same.

It’s time to re-imagine a more vibrantly innovative and exciting higher education sector for Australia. This will require canvassing some creative options among all the stake-holders in the sector. A lively conversation is needed before the sector becomes sclerotic and falls in a heap.

Here are just two, among many, possible options for consideration:

(1) This would entail accurately and sympathetically (not punitively) identifying under-performing institutions in order to bring them under the wing of high-performing institutions, where their academic staff could be provided with mentoring and collaborative research opportunities, and where there their students could be offered broader curricula choices and access to improved learning resources. A major cost saving factor would be the rationalisation of the expensive senior managements in the under-performing institutions into the high-performing institutions’ administrative structures.

(2) There is a debilitating variability in the standards of undergraduate teaching especially across all of Australia’s universities (e.g. where sometimes more than half of the teaching is conducted by casual staff). This indicates that pedagogical reforms must be a high priority right across the sector. This could be addressed by the creation of a strata of liberal education tertiary level colleges that specialise in high quality teaching and the provision of broad liberal arts and sciences curricula. There are some outstanding American models that could be drawn from to establish this reform. Meanwhile the teaching staff in these colleges could also have a formal affiliation within a university, as fellows for example.

It’s time to recall that the idea of a university has always been – and must remain – far more than a narrowly constrained utilitarian institution dancing in time to whatever economic policy tune is currently fashionable. In his biography of John Henry Newman (one of the very great thinkers about the role of universities), the British writer John Cornwell explains that Newman’s vision was “of the university as a community of unity in diversity, as opposed to an ill-assorted assembly of unrelated, segregated disciplines, or a meaningless set of relativisms, still less a constituency of conflicts and disparities’ (Newman’s Unquiet Grave, p. 129). Newman’s idea has its limitations, but his defence of universities as places pursuing “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” is a noble one. Australia’s universities would do well to have that at the forefront of their thinking as they re-imagine themselves comprehensively into the twenty-first century.

Allan Patience is a political scientist in the University of Melbourne.

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