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Universities under review, again

By Steven Schwartz - posted Tuesday, 6 December 2022

Charles William Wentworth, a poet turned politician, established Australia's first university in Sydney in 1850. His mission was to provide "the opportunity for the child of every class to become great and useful in the destinies of this country." There are lamentably few poets in the parliament today, but Wentworth's words still resonate with politicians and the public. Australian universities remain enduring symbols of the nation's egalitarian social values. They were among the first in the world to admit women; religion was never a bar to study, and, from the outset, bursaries and scholarships were available for bright students who were unable to pay their tuition fees.

A commitment to equity motivated Australia to become the first country to implement income-contingent loans for university tuition fees. Students borrow money from the government to pay their fees, and they do not have to repay their loans until their income reaches a liveable threshold. Unlike American student loans, it is impossible to default on an Australian student loan because repayments are only required when graduates have the financial capacity to make them. If graduates lose their jobs or stop working to raise children, their repayments stop.

Income-contingent loans make access to higher education a matter of brains, not bankbooks; they promote social mobility while still allowing graduates to contribute to the cost of their education. Other countries have followed Australia's lead.


In addition to educating its citizens, Australian universities are also enthusiastic recruiters of international students. Before COVID-19, around one-third of Australian university students were international, the highest proportion of any OECD country. Most of Australia's international students come from Asia, the region that Hamish Coates, professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne, called "the world's biggest higher education time zone."

Diversity in the classroom provides educational benefits to all students, and the high fees paid by international students come in very handy. Every Australian university uses international student fees to cross-subsidise the teaching of domestic students and to support research. This seems to be a win-win arrangement, but Australia's success in attracting international students is also a weakness because university budgets are vulnerable to any reduction in their numbers. Universities first found this out the hard way when changes to the student visa regime led to a sudden downturn in international students. It took years to rebuild numbers, only to have them decimated again by Covid-19.

In addition to international students who come to study in Australia (or in "branch" campuses abroad), the flow of students also goes the other way. The New Colombo Plan, named after the famous post-World War II regional recovery program, gives Australian students the opportunity to study or work in Asia and the Pacific. Thus far, thousands of students have taken up the opportunity. When the New Colombo Plan was first launched, Sandra Harding, former vice-chancellor of James Cook University, said that sending "Australian students to learn from regional counterparts-to become as comfortable working in Shanghai as in Sydney or Brisbane-is an initiative that will affect Australia's relationships and regional economies for decades to come." Her prediction has certainly come true.

A few years ago, in what may have been a world first, the Australian government abolished admission quotas for home students. Universities enrolled as many students as they wished, and the government provided funds for each one with a combination of loans and teaching subsidies. The inevitable result was a rapid growth in student numbers. Over 1.6 million students are enrolled in 40 universities and around 130 other public and private higher education providers. (Some controls on numbers have been reintroduced.)

When it comes to higher education, size is often considered inimical to quality ("More will be worse," according to writer Kingsley Amis). So far, this has not been true in Australia. In the first year of Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Academic Rankings of World Universities, two Australian universities made the top 100; this year, there are seven, including two in the top 50. The Times Higher rankings tell a similar story, with six Australian universities making the top 100. Sixteen Australian universities made the list of top universities that are under 50 years old.

Australia's Excellence in Research for Australia evaluation exercise found a high proportion of university research to be above world standard; medical and scientific research are particular strengths. Unfortunately, Australian universities (and companies) have not been good at commercialising research results. For this reason, researchers can expect granting agencies to place increasing emphasis on projects with clear economic or social impact.


Australian higher education has a lot to be proud of, but there are signs of trouble brewing. A once unified system is fragmenting. Universities have split into cliques, each lobbying for its member's interests. Multiple voices have reduced the impact of higher education's peak body, Universities Australia.

For the first time, the commitment to excellence that historically characterised Australian higher education is being eroded. Some universities admit poorly prepared students who would not, in the past, have been considered acceptable. As a result, dropout rates are soaring (over 25% in some institutions). At the same time, many graduates are taking jobs that formerly did not require a university degree.

Low admission standards, high dropout rates and large numbers of graduates in jobs that previously did not require a degree have led to concerns about deteriorating quality. The responsible agency, the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency (TEQSA), has traditionally focussed its assessments on inputs (the number of books in the library, for example). It seems inevitable that TEQSA will have to shift to measuring outputs (what graduates have learned). Universities face such accountability with trepidation.

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This article was first published on Wiser Every Day.

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About the Author

Emeritus Professor Steven Schwartz AM is the former vice-chancellor of Macquarie University (Sydney), Murdoch University (Perth), and Brunel University (London).

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