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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

dumbing down higher education? « Previous | |Next »
June 27, 2005

The comment below by Professor Allan Luke, the former Queensland University dean and now based at Singapore's National Institute of Education, accord with my own experience of working in Australia's universities as an academic in the 1990s.

My judgement is that with the decrease in federal funding universities stay afloat financially from the cash generated by the international students paying big dollars for their up front, full fee paying courses. It is called export-led growth.

Luke says that Australian universities are facing a tough future:

They've been cut and they've been cut and they've been cut. And as they've been cut they've been told to go get the money in the creation of the multi-billion-dollar Asian student export business----to go get the money from elsewhere... what that's done is, that in instances, some of the bottom-end players have sacrificed quality. That has had somewhat of a detrimental effect to the reputation of Australian education more generally.

It's ironic isn't it. As the universities are pushed by the liberal state into the business world to hunt for the cash they need to survive, some students are now paying more for less.

That kind of deal is the market for you. The market works against or disadvantages the newer gum tree public universities that have little prestige. These cannot generate much income by way of student fees so they are forced by the logic of being businesses in the education market to keep on cutting costs and reducing services. And, as they may well be in the process of losing access to research funding in a commercially-driven educational world, they will become cut down teaching institutions offering budget services.

The future of the gum trees?

Stagger from financial crisis to financial crisis. To be taken over? Or to disappear? Become degree factories that generate a cash flow for the university and turn a blind eye to falling standards?

What does that scenario say about Australia as the clever country? The ever alert Evans Jones has an answer.

Update: 28th June
I've read the transcript of the ABC 4 Corners The Degree Factorythis afternoon at work. It argues that univeristies are dependent upon vocationally-oriented courses funded by foreign student enrollments, and that the managerial administrators are turning their backs on an increasingly decrepit Australian system. Dr. Simon Cooper expressed it thus:

The fear is that, if Gippsland becomes a teaching only institution, the teaching won't be teaching as it relates to some idea of education; it'll be a factory model of teaching. You'll get low-paid academics who simply are churning out material that students will pay for and consume, in a sense.

I would argue that this is already happening.

Andrew Norton over at Catallaxy has a critical perspective on the social democratic conception of public universities expressed by Tickey Fullerton on the ABC 4 Corners The Degree Factory. Andrew says that:
Realistically, since the government is not going to fund the whole system at much higher rates or create elite institutions, the only way to avoid this (partially, at least) is to abolish central control of student places and fees.

That free market approach or pathway is understandable from David Kemp's advisor, when Kemp was education minister in the first Howard ministry. A university education should be commodified and consumers should pay above the full cost of delivery the course. As it is a business let us do way with centralized control of the conservatives.

One point that I disagree with Andrew on is around the mode of governance of the Howard Government. Their neo-liberal mode of governance uses the market as an instrument to ensure, and support, elite institutions (the G5-or G8) and to re-work the old institutional divide to create elite and bottom end universities. You will pay a lot more to be educated by the former. That is the whole idea: you get what you pay for.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 10:48 AM | | Comments (2)


Seeing the writing on the wall I quit academentia 8 years ago reluctantly giving up my hard won post as associate professor. I could no longer stomach the changeover from the university as a taxpayer funded system of public education to corporate purveyor of consumer products and services. I left for the uncertain but stimulating challenge of freelance consulting. At that time I could only see a darkening tunnel of snake pit internal politics and corporate spin doctoring but I am amazed that the trend has continued even more intensely over a protracted timespan.

I have worked in other tertiary systems around the world most recently in the USA. It is my view that Australian academics are amongst the best in terms of effectiveness and efficiency. During the eighties and nineties in the face of increasing cutbacks by both Labor and Coalition federal governments they turned a largely domestic system into one of the country’s best export earning industries. Their reward is to suffer a sneering, cynical federal education minister seemingly indifferent to the long term damage his government’s ideologically driven policies are wreaking on the university system. It is a system that needs intelligent and strategic government investment in order to meet its present and future challenges. The danger signs are already evident in the rising concern being expressed by many of our full fee paying overseas students and the media of the countries from which they come.

Overseas and domestic Australian students face not only rising staff-student ratios and reduced material resources but the stripping back of course content and contact hours to the point where many are mere ghosts of their former selves. The time has already arrived when the cream of Australia’s university graduates considers a university career only as a last resort. The time is approaching when Australian parents and self funded students will be weighing up the advantages of an overseas university education. We are long way down the slippery slope to a university system stripped of its best assets with its reputation for quality and value more tarnished with each passing academic year.

The relationship between a prosperous economic future and a healthy, well resourced tertiary education system can hardly be overstated. The Australian government seems hell-bent on frogmarching the university sector into a state of academic impoverishment perhaps in readiness for the second rate nation status we might one day wear. I fear for my former colleagues but I fear most for my children.

I never made it to associate professor. I was what the Americans call an adjunct in the philosophy department at Flinders University. I left to enter the political life cos I too saw the writing on the wall.

Now I have to admit that, as a political advisor to Senator Meg Lees, I was involved in the negotiations with Brendon Nelson in 2003 over educational reforms.

Though these gave the cash strapped public universities some much needed cash, they did not achieve automatic indexation of the block grant. That is what I thought was the minimium to ensure the survival of a public university that would be able to become more open and responsive to the changes in society.

I would qualify your comment:

We are a long way down the slippery slope to a university system stripped of its best assets with its reputation for quality and value more tarnished with each passing academic year.

by saying that the elite universities are retaining their reputation and valuebevcause fo their market prestige.