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A strategy for funding long-term excellence in Australian universities

By Alan Gilbert - posted Wednesday, 15 May 2002

As the Federal Government, through its new Education Minister, Dr. Brendan Nelson, embarks on yet another review of higher education in Australia, it must accept the fundamental reality that Australia’s universities are seriously under-resourced in international terms.

Still centres of very considerable excellence, they are trending towards mediocrity. That does not necessarily mean that more taxpayers’ dollars must be spent on higher education, but it does mean that major changes in public policy are now critically important.

All Australians, not just an economic, cultural or social elite, will bear the consequences of another political failure to address this fundamental issue. What is at stake – without exaggeration – is the long-term capacity of Australia to sustain a prosperous, informed society in which quality of life and freedom of choice matches that of leading developed societies elsewhere.


The Harvard economist, Robert Reich, was right in his seminal 1992 publication, the Work of Nations, in identifying access to ‘knowledge workers’ – people educated and trained to use up-to-date knowledge in highly sophisticated ways – as the most important single determinant of success for national and regional economies and corporations in the emerging global knowledge economy.

Intellectual property will become the most dynamic and lucrative form of property, knowledge work the most rewarding and highly valued type of professional employment.

As scarcity of knowledge workers becomes the great divide between success and mediocrity in the knowledge economy, societies unable to educate and constantly add value to world-class knowledge workers will find it increasingly difficult to attract such key people from societies that have invested wisely in knowledge infrastructure, including higher education.

So time is running out for enlightened university reforms in Australia.

Australia will either compete internationally in higher education, or fail as a knowledge nation. Without greater resources, even Australia’s research-intensive universities will find it harder and harder to attract and retain the top researchers Australia needs, and to maintain cutting-edge research infrastructure.

Unless they are better resourced, the learning environments that Australian universities provide for undergraduate and postgraduate education and training will also become degraded.


Good public policy will have two fundamental objectives. First, every Australian capable of benefiting from university study should be able to find a place in a university, irrespective of socio-economic, cultural or geographic circumstances.

Second, quality must be non-negotiable. It will profit Australians little to have ready access to mediocre universities.

To improve access, several changes are needed.

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About the Author

Professor Alan Gilbert is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne.

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