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Universities: Quality education leads to responsible citizenship

By Peter Sheehan - posted Monday, 8 November 2004

A much-needed review of Australian higher education commenced with the launch of the Minister’s discussion paper, “Higher Education at the Crossroads” in April 2002. This process resulted in the “Our Universities: Backing Australia’s Future” agenda, and, with the election over, change is about to get back on track.

As we head down the road of reform, the most significant reforms since Dawkins restructured the sector in the 1980s, it is timely to comment on two specific and related issues. The first is whether universities are fulfilling our needs, and this in turn relates to the fundamental question of whether it is the role of a university to educate or to train. These are certainly not the only issues confronting the sector at the moment, but they do merit special consideration.

Any examination of whether universities are fulfilling our needs immediately prompts the question of who “we” are. There are many stakeholders who can lay claim to a part of that identity. Students are the first and obvious group that springs to mind, but there are also academics (who teach and research), industry, the community sector, governments and global networks. Many of the tensions in the sector arise out of our inherent difficulty in answering the question “just whose needs do universities exist to serve?” This is not the place to answer that question, but its permanence must be kept in mind in the discussion that follows.


In the 21st Century we all accept the fact that a university must train its graduates. That controversy ought now be considered settled. But the training it provides should not be understood as the kind of training one might require to perform a trade, or practice a profession, important though that might be. University graduates must be trained in analysis, in flexible thinking, in communication and in the essential skills of adaptation, generalisation and innovation. This is an understanding of training in the broadest sense.

And yet, even this way of thinking represents an impoverished understanding of the real role of the university. The basic role of the university, which must be at the service of all sectors of society, is clearly not just to train but to educate. Students must be educated; that is, they must be “led out” from a narrow understanding to a much broader one. This affects how they will use their disciplines, how they will solve the problems that will face them, and how they will demonstrate the meaning of their university education.

Universities in particular have a vital role to fulfil providing quality education that guarantees responsible citizenship. If education is done well critical attitudes and analytical ways of thinking and reflection will be developed. In this way, one’s suitability for specific employment situations will be enhanced by the ability to generalise one’s thinking from one problem solving context to another.

The idea of responsible citizenship must also involve universities exposing their students not only to the values that characterise good university education, but also those values which are germane to the sense of purpose and meaning that universities like Australian Catholic University try to instil. Science and technology are important components of our capacity to think and solve, but they need to be complemented by enduring values, such as respect for the dignity of persons, and genuine tolerance of the differences of others.

The message that universities have a particular role to play in creating a civil society is one that the community at large does not always fully appreciate, and the failure to communicate it is a shortcoming of the sector itself. Universities must better inform the community about what they do best and do more to structure the expectations its various stakeholders have about them.

In the 21st Century, the importance of universities fulfilling their broader social missions must further increase. At the same time however, the challenges and obstacles increase also, and one that is beginning to emerge is threatening the sector’s vitality. One of the features to emerge from the current reforms is a level of bureaucratic interference in university administration that is now quite far reaching in its impact.


Universities have long valued and guarded their administrative and intellectual independence. This independence has allowed universities across the generations to be the germinators of creativity, reform and innovation. The last thirty years particularly have seen a steady increase in the role of Government (particularly Commonwealth) departments in the governance of universities. Even those universities that have been successful in drastically reducing their reliance on ever-declining government funding find that they face extraordinarily burdensome regulatory demands. This in turn requires universities to divert resources internally from teaching, research and community engagement to administration in the name of compliance. As the reforms are implemented, all the indications are that government interference will increase to new heights, including attempts to dictate to universities the courses they can and should not teach – an unacceptable interference with academic independence.

The point has been made by the AVCC and has wide endorsement throughout the sector. Government must hear the message: there must not be excessive bureaucracy. The result will be the stultifying of genuine initiative in the sector, and these kinds of outcomes are inimical to Government’s stated objectives. Government does not want them and higher education does not want them either. What we need is common resolve that results in common action. This point has been strongly made already by the President of the AVCC, Professor Di Yerbury.

It is tempting to constantly assert the importance of universities striving always to perform better. That way of thinking is critical for quality and the maintenance of proper standards of education. But aside from defensive reactions to the obvious, universities need to stand up and convince the community about what it is they do well. The sector’s confidence in what is important about university education and what proper education can and should achieve must never be allowed to abate. Hopefully that can be done in a non-obtrusive way. 

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About the Author

Professor Peter Sheehan is the Vice-Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University.

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