It’s time to clean up the mess that is Australia’s higher education system

Aug 11, 2022
TAFE building, Railway Square Sydney

In recent Pearls and Irritations posts, James Guthrie, Adam Lucas and Alessandro Pelizzon have signalled the need for a Royal Commission into higher education in Australia. Their advocacy could not be timelier.

Australia’s universities today have lost their way. They’re under-resourced victims of ill-thought massification strategies and a neoliberal culture of manageriualised madness. Governments fail to see them as vital public assets and mistake students as fee-paying clients rather than investing in their education to support the county’s future prosperity and security.

In July 1988 the so-called “Dawkins Reforms” were unleashed on Australia’s higher education system. Colleges of Advanced Education and TAFEs were swallowed up by universities. Some CAEs and TAFEs became universities in their own right or were merged with similar institutions to become quasi-universities. The Dawkins Reforms transformed universities from being places for a privileged minority to mass education institutions. That in itself was a fine idea, but the policies to implement it have either been non-existent or hopelessly inept.

The result is a catastrophic mess causing serious declines in teaching and learning standards, the clumsy casualisation of much of the teaching work force, and universities being devalued by governments and the media – despite the vital role they play in society and the economy. Vice-chancellors (presidents) have become CEOs on salaries and contracts aping corporate executives, opening up a yawning cultural and workplace gap between managers and academic staff. The outcome has seen a precipitous fall in morale among academic staff and students alike.

A divisive hierarchy of universities has emerged, further entrenching socio-economic inequalities while vandalising the very “idea” of the university. Some of the amalgamated institutions are now struggling to survive. Federation University in regional Victoria for example has announced that it’s abandoning its Bachelor of Arts programs because it can’t afford them – arguably surrendering its right to be called a university at all.

The decade of reactionary politics in Australia under the Abbott, Turnbull, and Morrison governments witnessed right-wing politicians treating universities with callous indifference and particularly during the Morrison era with derisive contempt. Morrison and Frydenberg locked public universities out of Job Keeper payments during the COVID lockdowns, resulting in the loss of some 40,000 so-called “casual” staffing appointments. Ministers of Education (notably Birmingham and Tudge) took it upon themselves to unilaterally cancel peer-assessed research grants.

The most negative of all the “Dawkins Reforms” was the imposition of a one-fits-all template on the Australian higher education sector. All of the “new” universities tried to copy the old prestigious universities, sometimes with farcical results. The reality of the vast diversity of interests and attributes among young adults seeking a post-secondary education was brutally ignored. Their needs and aspirations were (and are) haughtily dismissed by university managers bent on emulating the Universities of Sydney and Melbourne, if not Oxford and Cambridge.

The entire sector needs to be comprehensively restructured – a painful but essential pathway out of the mess in which it now finds itself. What Australia needs in fact is a tripartite higher education system. Three separate but equal higher education sectors need to be carved out from the presently swollen and dysfunctional unitary system.

  • Polytechnics (or Institutes of Technology)

These institutions are urgently needed to provide training programs at several levels, from trades apprenticeships through to high-technology research and training. Their task will be to to alleviate skills shortages while nurturing a culture of high-tech ingenuity and creativity across the country. They should award certificates, graduate diplomas and degrees in technology (the highest being the Doctor of Technology, equivalent to the PhD). Their models should be something akin to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or the California Institute of Technology.

The primary focus of the polytechnics should be on what Aristotle called techne – that is, practice. Many teaching programs appropriated by universities post-Dawkins should be returned to the polytechnic sector, including engineering, building construction, architecture, IT training, nursing and para-medical training, accounting and business, hospitality training.

  • Liberal Arts and Sciences Colleges

In the context of the information revolution sweeping the world, the Australian higher education system now needs a pre-university sector of colleges of liberal arts and sciences, similar to the great American colleges of liberal arts and sciences: for example Swathmore, Amherst, Wellesley. As the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum has noted, the task of these colleges will necessarily entail “shaping future citizens in an age of cultural diversity and increasing internationalisation”, by providing broad liberal arts and sciences curricula preparing graduates, inter alia, for professional degrees in universities – for example, Law, Medicine, and Teaching, while also providing them with the skills and discernment for doctoral and related research programmes.

The primary focus in the colleges must be on teaching. Research, mainly, has to be the domain of the universities. The colleges must recruit brilliant teachers who have the talents to inspire and broaden students’ understandings of their worlds. Graduating from the colleges (with a BA or a BSc) should be the primary entry requirement for graduate study in a university. That means the colleges will replace most, if not all, the undergraduate degree programmes currently taught in universities. They would make them what Immanuel Kant described as the “lower (that is, foundational) faculty”.

  • Down-sizing Universities

These developments would necessarily prune the size and scope of the academically byzantine mega-university structures that have come to dominate the higher education sector since Dawkins. These institutions are trying to be all things for all people, frequently failing at doing both. As the distinguished philosophical founders of the modern university John Henry Newman and Wilhelm von Humboldt argued in the nineteenth century, universities must be places that, first and foremost, are committed to the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake and that are engaged principally in pure research.

In the twenty-first century, they will still need prepare graduates for the professions in what Kant referred to as the “higher (or professional) faculties”, through graduate (presumably Masters) level courses of study. However, the “higher faculties” should be seen as a subordinate adjuncts to the knowledge pursuing and pure researching functions of any university worthy of that name – not the other way round as it tends to be at present.

Clearly a Royal Commission into our universities is urgently needed, inviting submissions and hearing evidence from all stakeholders who understand that Australia must aim for nothing less than a world-class higher education system. To cling to the higher education status quo would be deeply contrary to the national interest.

Allan Patience’s book The Idea of the Public University will be published by Routledge at the end of September 2022.

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