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Dr Brendan Nelson's university policy prescription: panacea, placebo or poison? Day 2

By Andrew Norton and Carolyn Allport - posted Thursday, 25 September 2003

Havachats are week-long email dialogues between two prominent advocates on an issue of the day. To vote on the issue and make your view count, click here.

Day 1 . 2 . 3 . 4 .

Andrew goes first. Carolyn responds.


From: Andrew Norton
To: Carolyn Allport
Sent: Thursday, September 25, 2003 9:57 AM
Subject: Put students in control

Dear Carolyn,

You are worried about universities shifting to a more "market based identity". I think you see that as being inconsistent with universities being "educational institutions first and foremost", whereas I see a move towards the market as essential to universities being able to pursue their educational missions more effectively than they do now, or indeed they have ever done (there may once have been a golden age for staff, but there has never been one for students).

Because most players in markets are there to make money, we tend to think that that is the sole purpose of markets. But the distinctive aspect of markets as institutions is not their capacity to produce wealth, but the way they do it, through voluntary exchange. What markets mean in the university context is not, then, that universities would become dedicated to making money, but that they would reflect much less the policy and financial constraints imposed from Canberra, and far more the consensus of what universities were prepared to offer and students to learn.

Giving student preferences more scope doesn't mean, as many fear, that universities would turn into purely vocational institutions. Research on student preferences shows that intrinsic value considerations, such as interest in the field of knowledge, opportunities for using personal talents and abilities, and for interesting and rewarding careers were at least twice as influential in discipline choice than employment rates, prestige or starting salaries. This leaves plenty of room for disciplines other than those with clear career paths. Even during the IT boom, more people applied for both the humanities and social sciences and the visual and performing arts than IT courses.

The difference under a more market-oriented system is that extra money could be put into all courses, vocational and non-vocational, and universities would have enhanced incentives to make sure the quality was good. On the whole, this kind of university would do a better job of educating students and preparing them for the professions. Who knows, they might, like some American universities, actually become interested in developing their students as people, encouraging student-staff interaction, campus life, and voluntary work.


I think the great tension in your view is that you want university autonomy, but endorse the biggest threat to that, which is reliance on a dominant funding source, the Commonwealth. History gives us no reason to believe that the Commonwealth will exercise its power well, and last week's legislation was another painful lesson in the dangers of dependence.800,000 students, each with their own relatively small sums of money, would be much more benign masters than the Department of Education, Science and Training.

(I have an idea - let's go for the Commonwealth's weak point, the dubious constitutional validity of current and proposed legislation, and force them to pay their higher education funding through students, as 'benefits to students' as the Constitution says, and not benefits to universities, as they actually do and propose to keep doing. But your union has always condemned this as 'vouchers'.)

Student-centred finance, with universities setting fees, is consistent with your more public money position. The difference is that public spending would be sent through the students, rather than given to universities directly. But it does mean that if the Commonwealth doesn't give students high enough subsidies they have a choice to pay more to maintain or improve quality. At the moment, that choice doesn't exist, and everybody must put up with what nobody wants? declining student-staff ratios and all the other signs of funding constraint.

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About the Authors

Andrew Norton is a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and Director of the CIS' Liberalising Learning research programme.

Carolyn Allport is National President of the National Tertiary Education Union.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Andrew Norton
All articles by Carolyn Allport
Related Links
Centre for Independent Studies
National Tertiary Education Union
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