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What sort of higher education system does Australia need?

By Don Aitkin - posted Friday, 12 December 2014

I watched Leigh Sales of the 7.30 Report interviewing Christopher Pyne recently, and wondered which one of the two I responded to least enthusiastically. The Minister won a close contest.

He seems besotted with the idea that Australian Universities need to be more competitive. With whom? They are quite competitive enough with one another, I think. This is part of what he said about it in an address to the National Press Club in August, setting out the Government's higher-education legislative proposals:

Through the Government's reforms, Australia can more than hold our own and create some of the best universities in the world and the best higher education system in the world. The reforms will create a system that increases our nation's international standing. The reforms will create a system that will provide Australians with the skills and knowledge for the jobs of the future… We live in a time of inevitable and constant change. The international economy is evolving… we are preparing graduates for jobs that have not even been defined today… Global competition for higher education is intensifying, there are world-class universities emerging on our door step in Asia.

We must equip Australia's higher education institutions to meet the demands of the 21st century and we have an historic opportunity to do this now. The choice is stark: either we spread access to higher education to more Australians and keep our country competitive with others in our region, or
we support a higher education system that is unsustainable, that will decline into mediocrity, and eventually be left behind.


Inasmuch as there any sense in this clamour, it is old stuff. As a vice-chancellor I was talking twenty years ago about preparing people for jobs that didn't yet exist, and I was not alone. I almost despise the 'rankings' of universities that are published regularly, because they focus on what can be measured, not on what is important. But there is no doubt that Australian universities feature in the top 100 in all of them, let alone in the top 200 and the top 500.

How many universities are out there, anyway? If you go to Answers with such a question, you'll learn that there were more than 22,000 at January this year. The USA has about 3,500, China about 2,500. Mozambique has 24. Australia has 42. Given that Australia has less than 2 per cent of the world's population, and that there about 200 nations, I would have thought that internationally we were doing well, insofar as you can define and measure 'doing well'. On at least these indexes, we already have 'some of the best universities in the world'.

I once shared a platform with an eminence who was at once the head of a corporation, the chairman of a symphony orchestra and a member of the council of an 'old' Australian university. He thought that Australia just needed to have one of the world's top orchestras and one of its top universities. No prizes for guessing which ones he had in mind. He so transparently believed in what he was saying that I was nonplussed. Eventually, when the time came for me to comment, I pointed out that his own orchestra had just had an overseas tour, which had seen it acclaimed everywhere, while his university was always either the first or the second in international rankings of Australian universities.

What more did he want? And if he wanted his orchestra to be even better, would that be at the expense of the money going to other orchestras, and if so, how would that be in the interests of their audiences? He laughingly waved my questions away, as mere rhetoric. So I argued that our universities had a multiple set of purposes, of which being internationally famous was only one, and that not at the top of the priority list. They were there to ensure that our professions were staffed by well-trained practitioners, provide everyone who could benefit from it an education at a level higher than secondary school, to accumulate and distill knowledge, to carry out research that was in Australia's interest and add to the knowledge base of the world, and generally to help in the process of civilisation in our society, which comes in part through greater knowledge and wider education.

And I'd say all that to Mr Pyne. The point of his exercise is that universities would like more money. They have talked about 'crises' since 1947, and the crises are always about insufficient funds to do what they want to do. Like every other organisation I've ever been in, they could do more if they had more money. The Abbott Government is not going to give them any more money - that is consistent with the general reduction in public expenditure, which is at the core of the government's program. But it could allow them to charge more for the courses they teach, and indeed, let them charge what they like.

On the whole the vice-chancellors like this prospect. I make no comment, because I'm now too far removed from the higher education world to know what the real situation is. No doubt the Group of Eight, the older, self-styled 'leaders' of the system, would charge more than the rest. Is the higher-education system 'unsustainable', as Mr Pyne believes? No, it isn't. Universities will always cut their cloth according to the money that is available to them. Is it threatened by a 'decline into mediocrity' if Mr Pyne's bill is not passed? Not on any evidence available to me. Is this time well described, in the higher-education system, as 'a historic opportunity'? Well, I can't see it.


All in all, my advice to Mr Pyne is the same as that I gave to his predecessors over a decade or more. First, read all the reports that successive Ministers of Education have commissioned. Second, leave the system alone. Third, find something else to do that is more productive, in terms of the public good, than meddling with universities.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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