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Another crisis in higher education

By Don Aitkin - posted Thursday, 25 June 2020


In 1947 the universities in Australia were trying to cope with the enrolments of former servicemen, and women, paid for by the Commonwealth Government under a postwar reconstruction scheme. The vice-chancellors, who rarely met, and there were only seven of them, wrote to the Government and declared there was a 'crisis'. That word was going to be overused throughout the next seventy years. During that time the world of higher education grew and grew, from around 25,000 in 1947, to well over a million today (or before Covid-19). Each time there was a sharp increase in enrolments there was a corresponding claim that higher education was in 'crisis' again.

Originally the Commonwealth Government had no funding role at all with respect to higher education. It is not mentioned in section 51, which sets out the Commonwealth's rights in legislation. In 1946, however, the electorate agreed to a Constitutional change allowing the Commonwealth to make grants to students. On that change has rested all the Commonwealth's subsequent intervention in higher education. It is now the principal funder of that sector of education, followed by the contribution of international students. Covid-19 and our lockdown has crippled the contribution of foreign students, and one current estimate of the funding downfall, just from local students alone, is $300 million. Heaven alone knows how long it will be before the cash cows are once again giving abundant milk. It will be a few years, I think.

So higher education is in crisis again. The Commonwealth is not unduly sympathetic, and the widespread feeling (within government) is that the universities should have put a lot of that foreign money into the bank. If they did, they aren't telling anyone. The Commonwealth, reasonably enough, feels that it can decide what universities are for, and the current view, expressed by Minister Tehan, is that it should be encouraging this sort of student rather than that sort of student. So graduates who might be 'useful' in the emerging post-pandemic meltdown, like nurses and STEM (science, technology and mathematics) are to be preferred over most arts and humanities and law students, whose HECS liabilities are to rise significantly. HECS is a deferred loan from the Government, allowing students to enter university without course fees, but with a contingent liability once their earnings reach a certain level. It has been in existence for some thirty years now, and has been copied abroad. One of its designers, Professor Bruce Chapman, was honoured in the recent Australia Day gongs for his contribution.

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Needless to say, these changes have caused horror in the system. Does the Minister not understand what universities are for? declared two contributors to The Conversation, both of them from the arts and social sciences camp. Why yes, he does, but it is not the contributors' view, which goes like this:

Universities exist to expand knowledge and create a civil society. They allow us to understand, challenge, collaborate, inquire, discover, create, design, confront and imagine.

The implications of the government's announcement are about more than incentivising the career trajectories of students. They are a direct assault on the premise of universities.

What follows is a lengthy essay on the history of the university. Since most members of the House of Representatives have been to university (I think!) they have heard this sort of talk many times already, from their first matriculation and every graduation day, and no doubt from a few of their teachers. When I was an undergraduate that was my experience too. You get used to it. I remember one such event when the distinguished speaker told us how lucky we were and how he wished he had been to university too. We looked at his Bentley and thought how lucky he was. No such vehicle looked possible to us, high school teachers to be.

Indeed, the whole culture of universities has changed many times since my arrival in 1954. We had come from high schools where we were most likely to be called by our surnames, and then gruffly. Now we were addressed as 'Mr' or 'Miss'. We lost contact with where we had been, and were cloistered in a residential university where everything that was important happened. We wore gowns, and were taught in small groups. 'Where is Mr So-and-so?' a lecturer would ask, and make a note in a list. Where the lecturer was known to be foreign (say Mathematics) the class roll might include such well-known personalities as Mr Edward Kelly and Mr William Nudgel (named after the small village in northern NSW called Billinudgel). Eventually the lecturer would get tired of their continual absence from his classes and complain to the long-suffering Registrar, who would explain gently that the students had pulled his leg.

Within a very few years we were joined by external students, funded separately and assisted differently, again funded by the Commonwealth. We already had a few evening students, and they didn't bother with gowns. Before I had become a graduate student myself, such creatures were filling up the faculties, and given opportunities to do casual teaching. For about two decades the enrolments in higher education doubled every seven years. The Commonwealth, desperately seeking a way out of the continuous and increasing funding of an expanding elite, so to speak, brought in a new class of institution, called the colleges of advanced education. They were not funded for research or for honours programs, and their senior people were not called professors.

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That lasted until 1987,when its time was well and truly up; colleges disappeared, either absorbed into existing universities or standing on their own. That change was perhaps the greatest crisis higher education had known. A couple of years later the Commonwealth ended its former Colombo Plan sponsorship of foreign students, and allowed universities to enrol foreign students for cash. That possibility the universities all grabbed with glee. Its effects have been somewhat virtuous and somewhat pernicious as well, as the pandemic lockdown has shown.

Its ramifications are still written about. What has occurred in the past thirty years is a sort of shaking down. The 'good and great', meaning the universities established by 1947, are still the 'leaders', though whom they are supposed to lead has always been a mystery to me. They do most of the research in the system, and offer the highest salaries. One of their vice-chancellors has a salary in excess of a million dollars. The second tier, a mixture of younger universities and well-established former colleges of advanced education, has found a niche that works, and its institutions are building their reputations. The third group, the remainder, is a set of universities that are struggling, and doing the best they can.

Meanwhile the students no longer wear gowns, a practice that had pretty well gone by the 1960s. Today most of them have jobs, and have to find money to live. In my old terms, they should be called part-time students, but many of them are carrying a full-time load. Only a few have the time, the interest or the energy to be involved in 'student activities', but then most of my fellow students in the1950s were more interested in informal activities like cards, billiards, drinking, and hunting after love, than the organised ones.

What we have now is yet another 'crisis', and like all the others, this one will sort itself out in time. It may even be followed by yet another 'review'. The absence of so many foreign students might allow universities to look hard at the extent to which those students have enough English to learn properly while they are here, and whether grades have been lowered to ensure that the students are satisfied with the outcome. I wouldn't bet on it.

ENDNOTE: The story of higher education in Australia is a vast and absorbing one, and my little essay skims the surface only. Dozens of books have been written about the last thirty years alone. My points here are that 'crises' occur every few years, as the system changes, while people within higher education passionately care about the changes. And so much of higher education is funded by the taxpayers, which they forget.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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