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Universities: getting the private sector to ‘buy-in’

By Sebastian De Brennan - posted Friday, 29 September 2006

The article ''Unis keen to foster culture of donations'' (The Australian, August 30, 2006) is spot-on. Australia's universities are not good at asking the business sector for dollars. Listed as the university most reliant on government funding, the University of Western Sydney provides a good case in point. With six campuses and 36,000 students, including about 3,000 from overseas, UWS has emerged as one of the largest universities in Australia. It was founded in 1989 with a clear and fundamental purpose: to provide high-quality and accessible education in a region of metropolitan Sydney historically under-resourced and undervalued.

Undoubtedly, the vice-chancellor has been adept at highlighting some of the challenges that UWS faces: its infancy relative to other Sydney universities; its inability to tap into alternative reserves of funding (including alumni funding due to the young age of the bulk of its graduates); the fact that it has six geographically disparate campuses; its distance from the Sydney CBD; not to mention the significant social and educational needs of the region to which it is accountable.

The problem is that lack-of-funding arguments seem to surface only when the spectre of educational reforms (that is, slashes in government funding) are nigh.


A better approach would be to use these war stories on an ongoing basis to compel the corporate sector into action. In other words, let the corporate sector know how their contributions could make a real difference in terms of student welfare, research and the community generally.

This should not be seen as an opportunity for governments to further erode the funding pool. Those nations with impressive records of corporate and private donations to education boast concomitant increases in government funding; and it is not a zero sum game.

But, from the top down, Australian universities must do better in terms of their community engagement. And that does not necessarily mean recruiting the strategic adviser for advancement from Harvard University. There is a real danger in leaving this kind of engagement to some kind of specialist development unit within the university, which for all its expertise may be disconnected from the real engines of the university, in the form of teachers, researchers and students. If the corporate sector is going to invest money then it is only fair that they see where it is going.

A better place to start would be for the deans and those at the coalface of Australian universities to sit down and draft a letter of invitation to those businesses they believe could play a meaningful role in their strategic directions. The Silicon Valleys of the world tell us that endowments will follow where robust relationships with local enterprise are established.

Finally, rather than looking at what they don't have, universities such as UWS would be well advised to look at their strengths. For all its historical disadvantage, greater western Sydney is today a global centre for trade, innovation and learning, with the third largest economy in Australia behind the Sydney CBD and Melbourne. Its population is the fastest growing in Australia and more than 150 of the nation's top 500 companies are located within the region.

It cannot be that the business sector in western Sydney, or anywhere else for that matter, is simply indifferent to the challenges that tertiary institutions face. As University of Queensland vice-chancellor John Hay suggests, we should not discount the possibility that the case for increased buy-in has not been well articulated by universities.


Australians are not a stingy people. Provided the government sector is pulling its weight, the corporate sector will, with the occasional prod, offer some form of financial or in-kind support for universities. The problem is those charged with running them need to learn how to ask.

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First published in The Australian on September 13, 2006.

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About the Author

Sebastian De Brennan is principal of De Brennan & Co. Consulting and teaches in the College of Law & Business at the University of Western Sydney and the School of Business at the University of Notre Dame Australia.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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