It’s time to reform Australia’s higher education system.

The drying up of international student numbers because of the coronavirus border closures, plus the Coalition government’s indifference (indeed, hostility) to universities, is undermining morale right across the country’s higher education sector.

Meanwhile the souring of diplomatic relations with China has led to Beijing warning its citizens that Australia is not a safe place for them to study. This means that Australia’s third largest overseas income-earner is sliding towards a fiscal catastrophe.

The last time Australia’s higher education sector faced such a moment was when it was convulsed by the lamentable Dawkins reforms in the 1980s. Then Education Minister John Dawkins’ fool-hardy changes resulted in the vandalising of Australia’s dual post-secondary education system, with colleges of advanced education and institutes of technology being shot-gunned into marriages with existing universities, or being declared universities in their own right. In one hit, it resulted in the undermining of technical and professional training in Australia and the deplorable devaluing of a university education.

Simultaneously, governments began to systematically and savagely reduce public funding to universities, while obliging them to enrol ever-increasing numbers of students. Students were forced either to pay high fees to enrol in degree courses, or to take out HECS-type loans to be paid back once they entered the full-time work-force.

There is plenty of evidence showing that these developments have had a negative impact on the scholarly cultures of universities and resulted in the lowering of teaching standards and learning outcomes. This decline has gone hand in hand with the imposition of a managerial ethos across university campuses that has ridden rough-shod over traditions of academic autonomy and seriously degraded the academic profession over-all. Vast swathes of the teaching in universities is now carried out by “casual” or “sessional” staff who lead a precarious existence on the ugly margins of the new academe.

Since Dawkins, governments have also pressured universities to compete in the international student market, with varied “success”. While it has certainly helped them to cope with successive governments’ financial stringency, what we are now witnessing is how it has led to a disastrous over-reliance on overseas students to prop up their budgets. It is likely that the days of ever-expanding overseas student enrolments in Australia’s universities are now at an end. And a precipitous end at that!

The saddest consequence of the Dawkins reforms is that diversity has completely disappeared across the entire higher education sector, except for the egregious development of a hierarchy of institutions, with the established, well-endowed universities (the “old” Group of 8 universities) lauding it arrogantly over the rest while intensifying Australia’s surging social inequality. Some of the smaller, mainly regional institutions are on the edge of bankruptcy. Some of them are little more than schools of nursing and/or teacher training colleges that unconvincingly try to ape something like an imagined Oxbridge ideal. And while nursing and teaching education are profoundly noble professions, the question that needs asking is: are they best served by those small, inadequately resourced institutions so bravely trying to train good nurses, wise teachers, etc.?

The fact is that there are too many universities in Australia today. Resources are spread too thinly across them all. All of them have top-heavy managers who are grossly overpaid and frighteningly detached from the day-to-day struggles of academics at the coalface. Lecturers are teaching too many students while trying to establish a “research reputation” (“publish or perish”). Meanwhile academics are relentlessly being measured against arcane and often ridiculously unrealistic key performance indicators (teaching, competing for research grants and publishing in “world class” academic journals, responding to arcane and often pettifogging administrative demands, and being “engaged” with external stakeholders).

Anyone who fails to see that this is a higher education system on the verge of collapse needs their head read. This certainly includes the federal Minister for Education and the Prime Minister, neither of whom demonstrate any sympathy for, or understanding of, what a university is and the contribution it makes, not simply to the economy (although that contribution is very significant), but also to the country’s cultural wellbeing.

A sensible course would be to use this looming crisis as an opportunity to address the problems bedevilling Australia’s higher education sector. It is time to develop a sophisticated tri-sector post-secondary system right across the country.

First, this will entail establishing a network of technologically advanced polytechnics. These must be both certificate- and degree-granting institutions of equal status to universities, conferring certificates of technology, through to Bachelors and Masters degrees in Technology, to industry-based doctorates in technology. They should be dedicated to training the highly skilled graduates for the high-end manufacturing industries that Australia must now invest in to guard its economic sovereignty into the future.

Engineering faculties should be at the core of these polytechnics, but they should also absorb a wide range of other applied knowledge professional faculties including nursing and paramedical services, IT services, policing programs, etc. Australia’s polytechnics should, for example, lead the world in preparing personnel for the emerging clean energy technologies that will revolutionise the post-fossil fuel economies of the future.

Secondly, the country badly needs a network of tertiary-level liberal arts and sciences colleges or academies similar to those in the United States. Their aim should be to provide a broad-ranging education for students who are still unsure what career they want to prepare for at tertiary level. The curricula of these colleges/academies should also provide students with the forms of knowledge needed to deal with an increasingly complex and inter-related world, absorbing many of the undergraduate degree programs currently taught in universities. They should focus on teaching well – in contrast to the often very poor levels of teaching currently available in too many university degree programs.

Staff in the liberal arts and sciences colleges/academies should also be able to be affiliated with a contiguous university with research interests relevant to their teaching and their scholarly interests. Hence a lecturer in a Liberal Arts and Sciences College A could also be designated as a Research Fellow in University B, on the clear understanding that their first responsibility will be to their teaching responsibilities in College A, raising teaching to the highly honourable status that it deserves but too rarely receives in Australia today.

Thirdly, Australia’s universities need to be pared back in numbers and focused more on teaching at the graduate level (for example, course work Masters programs) and engaging in world-class research. While of course they must be also able to demonstrate their relevance to the country’s economic wellbeing, they should never lose sight of John Henry Newman’s advice that a university worthy of the name must also be committed to honouring the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

It’s time to see that the current negative crisis in Australian higher education is also an opportunity for a comprehensive program of positive reform.

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Dr Allan Patience is a Principal Fellow in Political Science at the University of Melbourne.

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