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Whose universities are they, anyway?

By Don Aitkin - posted Wednesday, 28 February 2018

The publication of three books about the recent past and possible future of higher education, not to mention articles in journals and on the Internet, suggest that all is not well in academe. While all has never, at least since the end of the second world war, been well in academe (the AVCC first used the word ‘crisis’ in 1947), it may be true that the level of tension within higher education today is notably high. The three books are Glyn Davis’s The Australian Idea of a University, Stuart Macintyre’s No End of a Lesson, and my own Critical Mass. How the Commonwealth got into funding research in universities. All were published at the end of 2017.

‘The university’ is not a term with a single or simple meaning, and is almost undefinable. Just about all who have written about it have at least attended it as a student, and most have also served as academic staff. Their perspective is understandably coloured by their experiences. Their sense of what a university should be probably reflects their happiest experiences. What came afterwards was never as a good. Most of those who now have to deal with universities from outside the cloisters also attended the institutions as students, but their experiences were usually not as enjoyable, since academics on the whole favour and nurture those students who enrol in honours or distinction programs, whom staff see as future academics.

Moreover, the scale of higher education has changed greatly, even in my own time. There were six universities and 13,000 students in 1939, and when I enrolled at the University of New England in 1954, there were perhaps twice as many students, plus a seventh university, the ANU. In 2017 there were 43 accredited universities, plus a small private university and two off-shoots of foreign universities. The research funds provided to the sector through the ARC and the NHMRC alone were nudging $2 billion. More than a million students were supported by more than 100,000 staff of all kinds. The large number of overseas students provided the economy with fees and living expenses whose sum made higher education a major player in Australia’s foreign earnings. In 1954 only two per cent of 18-year-olds attended an institution of higher education; today it is the intended destination for two thirds of all school-leavers. When I went to UNE I almost disappeared from my former social scene: I was ‘at uni’, gone from sight into a world that only students knew. I never returned to the old scene. Today universities are part of the mainstream of Australian society, and students are hard at work not only in higher education, but in restaurants, bars, night clubs and elsewhere. They need the income.


Several factors caused the continuing postwar growth. One was wealth. Australia kept growing in wealth and some of that wealth, channeled through government, built universities and later colleges, and some of the rest allowed more discretionary income to more families. Parents wanted more education for their children, girls no less than boys. Human knowledge (basically, what academics published in journals) multiplied and multiplied, and that happened professions began to demand that their entrants know more, through having obtained a university degree. Relative status claims, Australia’s main social cleavage, ensured that one profession after another lobbied to have their role in society authenticated by a proper degree.

The universities that started in colonial days were poor, and lived off government grants, student fees and philanthropy. There was not much of the latter, save in Perth. Today’s universities find their biggest sources of income through Commonwealth grants, overseas student fees, and research money. Though they still occupy the same sites as was the case when they began life (along with a great deal more real estate), the reality of university life is quite different, and it is the differences that cause the criticism and the tensions. Universities are never the same, no matter what their appearance suggests.

It is not clear who owns universities, or who is really accountable for them. After President Eisenhower retired from the army in 1948 he became the President of Columbia University. The story goes that he invited the senior staff to a meeting at which he said how pleased he was to meet the university’s employees. There was a stunned silence, at the end of which the senior dean replied, ‘Mr President, we are the University!’ The notion that academic staff are the real core/owners/essence of the university is widely held by academic staff, especially in the older established universities. It is true that both Oxford and Cambridge were founded by scholars, who met together, attracted students, and sought bequests to enable buildings and scholarships. And they were successful, too. But neither university was given annual grants by the monarchs of the time, and no monarch established a review to see whether they were doing what they should have been doing, whatever that was. Oxford and Cambridge are not a sensible model for Australia, which in fact followed in the mid 19th century the Scottish model of the university.

These days students have a keen sense that they are the real university, on the ground that they pay fees, and that without them and their fees there would be no need of the academic staff, or indeed of the university as a place. I guess most vice-chancellors have had the experience of a student’s coming to see them with a complaint about the quality of teaching, or an examination outcome, in a particular course or unit. Twenty years ago my example pointed out that he had paid $3,000, or whatever the amount was, and thought the quality of what he found was execrable. There were available processes he could have used (he had failed a unit or two) rather than come to me, but I explained to him that the University’s current value, all up, was then about $200 million, and its annual budget was a tad less. His $3,000 was not, all things considered, a straw that might break a camel’s back. Then we got down to what could be done in his particular case. Though that one was solved pretty easily, there is little doubt that lots of our students, and their parents, think that they have been short-changed. In particular, many object to the importance that ‘research’ has for staff, over ‘teaching’, the latter being what they see as the core purpose of the institution.

The Commonwealth, the real provider, knows that universities are important, and that research is important, but has no idea, really, how to make anything better. From its perspective higher education is simply tertiary education, the next stage after school. The Treasury and Finance are probably united in the view that too much money goes into university coffers and is badly used, but unless the Government wants to really regulate the sector, what we have will remain a stand-off, productive of criticism, tension, laments for past golden ages, and an instrumental perspective from almost everyone. The Dawkins changes in the late 1980 are unlikely to be repeated: there is no unanimity about what changes are needed, and no forthright and audacious Minister who could bring the changes off.

It is well to remember, when talking about the ‘real’ university, that the vast majority of students see the university as a pathway to the job they want after graduation. They did seventy years ago, too. It is sixteen years since I left my last university, and all I know about ‘university life’ today is anecdotal. The academics who rail against the dumbing down of intellectual life there (and one did so to me the other day) seem to have come almost entirely from the arts and science faculties. The professional schools, where most students go, have been preparing students for a particular kind of work after graduation in much the same way for well more than a hundred years. If their graduates become intellectually interested that is a bonus, but it is not what their faculties set out to achieve, for the most part. If universities are now dominated by the ‘left’, again that would seem to me most likely in the faculties of arts and their counterparts, not in the professional schools.


To repeat, universities are strange, diverse and awkward public institutions. I liked all those I had anything to do with, but none of them was perfect, or could ever have been perfect.

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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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