Australian higher education: where to now?

The system is suffering from underfunding and staff redundancies. What future for elite education in Australia?

Greg McCarthy

Education | Australia, Asia

22 January 2016

There is a growing disparity between Australian universities and competitors in Asia, which government policy needs to address, writes Greg McCarthy.

The year 2015 saw the Australian higher education system suffer under the weight of chronic underfunding and announcements of large-scale staff redundancies:  the University of Melbourne announced extensive redundancies, followed by job losses at both the University of Adelaide and the University of Western Australia. Significant staff cuts in 2016 are flagged so as to meet the high cost of research and infrastructure expenditure.

These redundancies have been explained away by the Coalition government as independent decisions taken by autonomous universities. This was apparent when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull dismissed suggestions that research innovation would require an increase in public funding in favour of his preference for results from a new climate of positivity.

But the problem is far more deep-seated and the repercussions of the blanket commercialisation of academic institutions will have a long reach.

Turnbull’s optimism that universities will serve industry as an act of noblesse oblige fails to recognise the unravelling of the elite model of university life that he experienced at Sydney University and Oxford. This model has been fundamentally transformed under the weight of international and mass enrolments (or massification) and two decades of public defunding. Australian universities have sought to top up research funding through international and domestic student fees, but this strategy has its limitations. In the end, more students eventually mean more costs; for a decade this has been alleviated by extensive casualisation of university workforces, but now with 50 per cent of teaching conducted by casual staff, this solution is reaching its limitations.

Consequently, institutional responses to the funding crises will flow beyond 2016, with major professional and academic staff down-sizing, a significant rise in teaching-only positions, leaving research neglected, and an increase in academic workloads to fund any ongoing research and infrastructure expenditure.

Paradoxically, while governments proclaim universities are independent, all Australian universities have to fund the imposition of the Regulatory State – or excessive regulation – which has accompanied massification. The overabundance of pro vice-chancellors and deputy vice-chancellors across Australian universities, acting as intermediate regulators, is a result; their duty is to enforce teaching and research compliance. In this regime students are mere customers and research is primarily valued if it complies with institutional rankings. Once university staff had discretionary power to manoeuvre around the compliance rules, but now with massification and overt accountability, professors and line mangers are left to bemoan their loss of power or to become compliance collaborators, the value of their research is secondary.

More on this: How international education can enhance Australia's international influence | Dean Forbes

The time has come where the ordinariness of accountability to the market and the rupture it is causing to the end result has to be confronted. The finishing point of the current administrative logic is that Australian universities will remain homogenised, overtly driven by the preference for job-ready teaching and industry-focused research, which will fail to serve human needs or address moral uncertainties that don’t comply with market forces.

Australian universities’ response to declining public funding has seen a rush to mass and international student enrolments. The effects of the paradox of unplanned massification and increased compliance have blurred the line between detached and vocational education, whilst spreading research funding thinly.

Australian university policy has erased the distinction between elite and vocational education. In contrast, China and Japan, under governmental planning, have clear lines of segmentation separating elite research universities and vocational institutions. The result is notable research achievements.

This growing disparity between Australian and Asian universities can only intensify the episteme anxiety that pervades Australian government education policy, so obvious in the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper.

The Australian government’s only response to this epistemic anxiousness has been that of deferring to the forces of a commercial market, even when this rationality is evidentially failing.

The failure of the market rationality opens up the question of the whole funding model of Australian universities. If, as it seems, redundancies are now the way of supporting research it may well be the moment for this question to be addressed away from both the government and universities. In this regard, Wendy Brown provocatively argues that the perils facing public universities are so great that the time has come for new guardians to come forward to defend the public in public universities.  Australia waits for such guardians to emerge.

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McCarthy, Greg. 2017. "Australian Higher Education: Where To Now? - Policy Forum". Policy Forum. http://www.policyforum.net/australian-higher-education-where-to-now/.

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