The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) recent report, Education at a Glance, singles out Australia as the only developed country to reduce public spending on higher education in the ten years up until 2004, and shows that Australia devotes a lower proportion of GDP to the sector than the world average.
These statistics even managed to intrude upon an electoral campaign that was notable, in spite of Labor’s focus on education, for its lack of actual discussion of higher education: then Prime Minister John Howard lost his temper in a debate when his opponent, Kevin Rudd cited Australia’s lamentable standing in the report.
The OECD report documents the ways in which Australian universities have been increasingly starved of public support, becoming more reliant on student fees and other income - while at the same time having to support much higher numbers of students. There can be no doubt that the report provides a largely accurate picture of the state of higher education funding in this country. And Australia’s much-vaunted Higher Education Endowment Fund did little to improve the situation.
Indeed, the real situation is even more pessimistic than the OECD report suggests, largely because of increases in bureaucracy. The last 15 years has seen an enormous growth in government control and scrutiny of higher education, with a consequent rise in the proportion of university budgets given over to bureaucracy and administration. Most Australian universities now devote more than half of their income to non-academic costs. This diversion of funds into bureaucracy means funding directed to the core activities of teaching and research has declined even more significantly than the overall figures indicate.
The increase in bureaucracy confronts academics with constantly rising demands on their own time and energies to meet a range of reporting and assessment requirements. The RQF (Research Quality Framework) exercise provides a good example of the absurd ratio of costs to benefits. The scheme, which aims to provide a new framework for the annual distribution of about $600 million in research funding is estimated to cost each university alone about $10 million - and this for an exercise that almost all agree is seriously flawed.
For academics, the past decade or more has not just been a period of over-administration and under-funding, but of sustained attack by government on the independence and the value of academic work in general.
Examples abound: the then minister of education, Brendan Nelson's vetoing of ARC projects selected by peer review; the Howard government's rejection of social scientific research that does not conform with the government’s own ideological commitments or political interest (research on WorkChoices being a good case in point); the ridicule of research and teaching in the arts and humanities that does not conform with a certain conservative agenda.
There can be no “education revolution” that does not include a revolution in higher education.
In the present circumstances, a true revolution in higher education must recognise the distinctive character of academic research and teaching, and the fact that its modes of operations and measures of success cannot be simply equated with those drawn from other sectors of society. It must involve improved levels of funding, not to university administration or higher education bureaucracies, but to the real tasks of research and teaching that are at the heart of university life and work.
Such improvements in funding will undoubtedly involve some real increases in expenditure in the sector. But these increases could be kept at a minimum by dismantling some of the unnecessarily complex and burdensome reporting and assessment structures that have become such a feature of the higher education landscape over recent years, and by removing some of the pressures on universities to compete among one another for the same dwindling supply of resources.
There is need for an education revolution in Australia. That need is driven by the enormous challenges that the future holds for us - challenges that are already evident in the present. In a range of areas from climate change to new technologies, we need skills and intelligence, creativity and innovation, ideas and inventions, more than we have ever needed them before.
While our schools are vital in ensuring that we have the foundations to meet such challenges, it is our universities that provide the developed capacity, the disciplinary skill, and the intellectual drive that is essential.
While additional investment in education, including higher education, is a vital part of any true education revolution, the first steps towards reinvigoration of the university sector could be taken simply through a redirection in existing funding and a reduction in bureaucratic structure along with a reassertion of the fundamental principles of academic freedom and independence.
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