The marketing of Australian universities

Nov 1, 2019

There seems to have been a long period of quiescence in higher education, with the interests of the top end of the university sector (identified as the G8) coinciding with the desire of successive governments to shift costs away from their regular budgets and on to overseas consumers. But some chickens have come home to roost concerning other interested parties, not least the wider public but also non-G8 universities and regional institutions promised a better deal by the LNP in its slim election policy portfolio.

Allan Patience’s ‘Re-imagining Australia’s Higher Education Sector’ (23.10.19) accurately focused on the internal issues facing university students and staff. At John Menadue’s suggestion, I offer an additional contribution drawn from my diversity of experience as well as its longevity.(I am celebrating my diamond jubilee of engagement with tertiary education, having completed my pass degree at the University of Tasmania in 1959.)

Federal and state governments are now grappling with three consequences of changes initiated mid-way through my career – specifically (1) the hierarchical relationship within the university systems based on presumed research commitment; (2) the consequences of a funding model first promoted in the Dawkins 1977 Higher Education Green Paper which has led to over-valuing the benefits of international students; and (3) the under-valuing of vocational preparation as an educational objective and lack of attention to the TAFE sector.

The presence of Asian students and the structure of the institutional hierarchies have been getting much attention inside the university “bubble”. But Shergold’s review of senior secondary pathways is likely to get more attention from the voting public, especially those with children attending secondary schools and facing an ATAR present and an uncertain vocational future.

Writing in the Australian Financial Review, Robert Bolton provided an arresting headline: “Barriers to fall between university and training” (24.10.19). Training in this binary typology is provided by state-supported technical and further education colleges as well as the range of private providers operating with misleadingly wide titles. Bolton reports that Minister Tehan has indicated that “micro-credentials would be recognised to allow universities, TAFEs or training companies to offer short, highly-targeted courses to students and employers to fill skills gaps ‘without getting bogged down in red tape’.”

There have been a number of post-mortems about problems in the current TAFE sector and several sensible suggestions have flowed from both the Grattan and the Mitchell Institutes. Absence of red tape was not viewed as a problem.

What is interesting about the Tehan statement is the recognition, so often concealed by universities except in targeted course advertising, that all levels of education courses have a notional commitment to vocational preparation.

Citizens and taxpayers expect universities as part of the wider education system to provide vocational opportunities for themselves or their children, whether they want to be doctors, nurses and teachers, or engineers, electricians and plumbers. Social sophistication and research are the proclaimed add-ons (”special sauce”?) provided by universities.

Over the years, governments have decided that there should be varying levels of co-payments for the various levels, from providing free TAFE-type courses inside secondary schools to high fees for postgraduate university courses in health sciences. And some of these courses at the high end require expensive staff capable of undertaking research to advance the field of knowledge in these disciplines, often using expensive infrastructure.

This is where Coaldrake enters the picture with the Review of the Higher Education Provider Standards (15.10.19) report which argues that the university system requires a simpler form of categorisation with measurable standards administered by the existing Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency. To be called a university, an institution must produce world-class research in a minimum of three, or a third, of the fields it is teaching in. This threshold would rise to 50% over the next decade.

According to the 2018 performance ratings, several universities would fall well short of this threshold. The main reason is that research is expensive compared to the vocational content of most undergraduate and non-research masters degrees. Private providers like Bond and Notre Dame have acted diligently as commercial institutions to minimise research expenses; rural and suburban institutions have had the same managerial impulse in more straitened circumstances. (In addition, institutions specialising in a single subject area like theology would be ruled out.)

Coaldrake argues that these recommendations are “intended to protect brand Australia and in particular protect the interests of our students”. (emphasis added, SMH, 15.10.19). The peak body, Universities Australia, welcomed the defining role of research, as did the chief executive of the elite Group of Eight.

The need to “protect brand Australia” is linked to yet another theme widely discussed by pollsters and in the newspapers: the growing, and some find alarming, dependence upon selling this brand to overseas customers, mainly Asian students and mainly Chinese among Asians.

When I was heading a CAE and John Dawkins was Minister of Education, the tertiary sector was required to decrease its dependence on national taxpayers not only by mandatory fee contributions but also by providing courses attractive to overseas students. At that time, this was seen as a component of international aid and justified as increasing mutual understanding between nations.

Since then, that component has risen to become a major source of revenue, overshadowing income from Australian undergraduates, particularly among those elite urban universities representing “brand Australia” in terms of market penetration.

As Glyn Davis acknowledged in his book The Australian Idea of a University (MUP, 2017), urban universities like his alma mater (Sydney) and his then bailiwick as VC (Melbourne) had particular advantages conferred on them by their location and their history.

These advantages are shared to a lesser extent by other members of the G8 urban elite. This means that they have been able to convert their research eminence into market dominance in recruiting overseas students. In budget terms and leadership focus, international students are a cash cow which creates less dependence on the generosity of Canberra.

The combination of research focus and international funding sources undermines the credibility of the federal LNP election promises to safeguard rural and remote institutions. Neither overseas nor local students nor researchers are beating down the doors to live in Ballarat or Rockhampton.

It also leads to a bifurcation and role dissonance within elite universities themselves. There will be staff and infrastructure commitments funded in part by private sector organisations (if they have commercial potential) but mainly by federal research funds (which are promised to be increased after Tehan’s enthusiastic endorsement of Coaldrake’s recommendations).

But there will also be a need for staff and infrastructure commitments to provide courses designed to be sold overseas under the label of “brand Australia” with narrow vocational purposes. In an earlier Menadue contribution, I mentioned courses in tourism and international hospitality management but friends in the health sciences report on the disturbing dominance in some courses of students enrolling from Canada to bypass that country’s stringent rationing of qualifications.

Once upon a time, governments and directors-general were concerned to match university intakes in specifically vocational courses (like medicine and school-teaching). Nowadays, if 400 Queensland students want to enrol in courses to compete for 40 job opportunities as paramedics, or thousands across the country want to study marine science, it is in nobody’s financial interest to question their individual judgements.

I am not sure this represents progress viewed from a community perspective, but I am not a behavioural economist. I note however the authors of The Future of Work for Australian Graduates (Pennington and Stanford, The Australia Institute, 2019) point to significant deficiencies flowing from this “light touch” approach when many other countries have much better labour-market planning systems. We can expect to hear more on this from Shergold.

And there is also a community perspective to be taken into account concerning the dominance of international students in those sought-after urban G8 institutions. Many of these universities are obviously colonial foundations but they were also civic institutions which represent significant sunk costs in land, effort and infrastructure.

Devoting half an institution’s time and energy to servicing the needs of overseas students in pursuit of entrenching “brand Australia” may pay dividends within the international market. It also makes managerial sense in terms of exercising financial autonomy within favourably-placed universities.

But it could also be seen to represent a denial of the heritage associated with the brand, as well as restricting opportunities for local students (or candidates for chairs of Australian Literature). There is also the worry that the strategic presence of overseas students is driving all consideration of specifically Australian issues from many aspects of the curriculum.

Perhaps I am like Lear raging against the storm. The years may have finally caught up with me, since I very comfortably occupy the rank of tutor in the University of the Third Age. Pity if that institutional identity were to be changed by government fiat, as U3A is more like the medieval university than any of the ten other places I have worked.

Roger Scott has been an Emeritus Professor of the University of Queensland since 1987 and now teaches African history at the Brisbane campus of the University of the Third Age.

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