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Our burgeoning universities

By Mike Pope - posted Friday, 1 May 2015

The senate has done taxpayers and students a favour by throwing out government legislation to de-regulate universities, which would have allowed them to set their own fees. How so? Because, at long last, it forces universities to make some hard decisions, rather than rely on public money to pay for never ending expansion of infrastructure, courses offered and student intake.

By deregulating universities the government would have 'saved' billions by making Universities responsible for most of their own funding. However, that action would have forced universities to expand ever faster than they have been doing and burden students with much of the cost of doing so. Rapid expansion of Universities to accommodate increased student intake to help pay for expansion has consequences which include:

  • Expanding an industry rather than creating renown institutions of leaning
  • Creating a need to attract more students
  • A need to expand courses on offer
  • Lowering University entry requirements
  • Lowering course pass marks
  • Awarding degrees based on declining standards
  • Passing expansion and operating costs on to students
  • Making graduates debtors for half their lifetime.

Universities, with the exception of the University of Canberra, claim that they face a financial crisis which can only be addressed by deregulation. How can this be true when some of our larger Universities have healthy reserves and surpluses? Others only face a financial crisis because of unwise and possibly unnecessary pursuit of expansion, rather than achieving educational excellence.

If a university wishes to offer a degree course in tourism, should it be free to do so and should such a course attract public monies for infrastructure or staff? Or are such courses better delivered by TAFE? Where a university offers a degree course in teaching should it be conferred on students who have failed to demonstrate appropriate standards of numeracy and literacy? Should a university confer a degree of nursing on those deemed under qualified by their peers? The ABC's "4 Corners" program shows these things occur.

Expansion in courses on offer or the infrastructure and equipment needed for their delivery is far more likely to create a financial burden on everyone rather than a megalith of research and learning. Oxford and Cambridge achieved their greatness over centuries by attracting - and creating – some of the greatest minds of the age rather than by achieving some critical mass. Size is important but so is reputation. Some of our leading universities do attract great minds but they also attract those of a lesser caliber.

The University of Western Australia appointed Bjorn Lomborg to be an Adjunct Professor of a Consensus Centre pronouncing on economic issues in the light of global warming – even though Lomborg has no qualifications in economics or climate science and has gained a well deserved reputation for denialism. The University of Melbourne appointed Ian Plimer Adjunct Professor of Earth Sciences, the author of a book so riddled with errors in science and inaccuracy as to make one shudder at the thought of what students are taught at that institution.

Academic reputation is being squandered by some Australian Universities while others, like Central Queensland University – spread over 15 campuses, each in a different city or town, each with its own lecture halls, amenities and staff – appear to be doing too much with too little. Some of our universities suffer self-inflicted financial crises and with growing desperation seek a bail-out from government, from students, from anyone – but fail to look inwards, examine the causes of their predicament and alternatives for addressing it.

There are alternatives to rapid individual growth by Universities and the problems noted above. The most obvious is consolidation or amalgamation. Do our larger State Capitals need 3, 4 or more universities each? If fees are fixed or highly competitive, inevitably universities must compete for the highest number of students, paying sufficient to cover the cost of their continued expansion.


Deregulation might enable universities to reduce student intake and compete for the best academic students but would that be the result? Or would each university aim to maximize the use of an often bloated infrastructure by competing for a larger target intake? Far more likely that all deregulation would achieve is perpetuation of an often mad, bad and damaging race and, in the process, inflate the price of a university degree beyond what is affordable for most.

Oxford and Cambridge comprise many collages venerable and new but only one University in each case. It is unthinkable that more than one University would exist in either city, let alone compete with each other. These universities are colossal in scholarship, in size and in reputation. Australian universities could gain by emulating much of what they have achieved in an affordable and efficient manner. That is far less likely to be achieved by proliferating and competing, than by amalgamating.

If carefully planned, amalgamation of existing universities would reduce duplication and promote better use of bricks and mortar. More efficient budgets could be prepared. Reserves could be consolidated and used more effectively. Amalgamation would reduce administrative staff and academic positions, resulting in higher standards of teaching, higher requirements for graduates and, importantly, a higher academic reputation.

Amalgamation might not be easy. It is not a universal panacea but it is a rational alternative to the on-going expansion seemingly favoured by government and universities. So, yes, the senate was justified in throwing out legislation to deregulate our universities. But is that action enough? Does Parliament need to undertake a broader examination of tertiary education and just how stringently it is regulated and administered - and the quality of education it provides?

Given the proliferation of universities and other tertiary institutions, it is time parliament investigated them. It needs to determine whether the courses they offer and the standards they set – and actually achieve - are consistent with furthering the national interest in general and the needs of Australian industries in particular. It also needs to determine if courses on offer are best delivered by a university, by TAFE colleges or other institutions and if standards required for degree courses are uniform and adequate.

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About the Author

Mike Pope trained as an economist (Cambridge and UPNG) worked as a business planner (1966-2006), prepared and maintained business plan for the Olympic Coordinating Authority 1997-2000. He is now semi-retired with an interest in ways of ameliorating and dealing with climate change.

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