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Australia's Universities: Looking back and looking forward

Launch by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor of The Australian National University, of Glyn Davis, The Australian Idea of a University (MUP, 2017 and Stuart McIntyre, Andre Brett and Gwilym Croucher, No End of a Lesson (MUP 2017), University of Melbourne, 23 November 2017

One of the most embarrassing observations to emerge from these two splendid books I am delighted to be launching today is in the Introduction to No End of a Lesson, when the authors observe that none of John Dawkins’s fellow Cabinet ministers at the time, and that includes me – or for that matter anyone else outside the circle of university and college administrators most immediately and obviously affected – really took much notice of what he was up to from 1987-91, or had any real sense of the scale and significance of the changes he was forcing, as he mounted his blitzkrieg on the higher education system.

As Stuart McIntyre, Andre Brett and Gwilym Croucher write, ‘There is little evidence that Hawke took a personal interest in higher education – it finds no place in his memoirs, and is conspicuously absent from those of other ministers, including some who had worked as academics before entering parliament.’(I hope that I’ve done a little to redress that in my own just-released memoir, but I acknowledge it’s been a long time coming.) They go on:

Nor is it included in such influential accounts of the period as Paul Kelly’s End of Certainty. The changes that swept over higher education were certainly newsworthy, but they lacked the theatre of the Accord and the Summit, or the clear import of decisions such as floating the dollar. It was not easy to discern the issues at stake from the polemical exchanges between Dawkins and the country’s vice-chancellors, and it seemed to many that what was proposed was simply a corollary of the […]economic reform initiated in 1983, akin to the efficiency measures imposed on other sectors. (pp.9-10)

That captures perfectly the atmosphere as I recall it. It is not that Joe Dawkins crept up on anyone by stealth: it’s just that there was so much else going on, and that what he seemed to be doing so closely fitted the prevailing government narrative – simply imposing more efficiency on a rather sleepy and not then very articulate-in-its own defence sector, and creating potentially many more tertiary places in a community hungry for them. As with just about everything else Joe did in government it was with all guns blazing: confrontational, with a very clear sense of where he wanted to go, untroubled by self-doubt, and mostly – but not completely – right in the solutions he imposed.

Like most of his colleagues I had a rather mixed view of Joe at the time, hugely respectful of his intelligence and ability to get things done, but sometimes a little less-whelmed by his personal style. As I say in my Cabinet Diary, in an entry written a year before he became Education Minister following a conversation about trade policy which I describe as ‘long and amiable’: ‘Dawkins is fine when he is not being manically obsessive and self-promotional, but I guess that goes for most of us.'

If few of us at the time had any real sense of the scale and significance of the Dawkins revolution, we have had little excuse in the years since and now have no excuse at all with the appearance of this marvellously comprehensive account in No End of a Lesson¸ the product of a major cooperative research project initiated by Glyn Davis in 2012, of the birth, and development to 1996 of what we now know as the Unified National System of higher education. The crucial changes imposed by the Minister were, as summarised by the authors (p.2), to:

  • Abolish the distinction between universities and colleges to form a single unified system
  • Consolidate existing providers to create a smaller number of much larger institutions (on Glyn Davis’s account of the amalgamations, ‘by the time the Dawkins wave of mergers concluded, 73 higher education providers had become 38 universities’)
  • Increase the number of enrolments, especially in fields of study seen as crucial for economic growth, and shift some of the cost to students (albeit on the basis of an inherently highly equitable income-contingent loans system, as designed by – I can’t help saying ‘the ANU’s’ – Bruce Chapman)
  • Direct more research funds to areas deemed of national importance
  • Remove the body – CTEC – providing advice and allocating public funds to make institutions directly accountable to government
  • Make changes to decision-making and management, requiring institutions to operate in a more business-like fashion, taking greater responsibility (with one side benefit being a reduction in the size of the ANU’s governing Council from 44 to 23, a consummation devoutly to be wished - which we’ve since taken further, with a Council now of 16 members, and still successfully accommodating staff and student representatives).

While all these changes have proved remarkably resilient over time – as Stuart McIntyre and his colleagues remark, ‘The formation of the United National System seems to have exhausted the country’s capacity for institutional innovation’ – they have not, as both these books, and especially Glyn’s, make abundantly clear, been universally loved.

One thing that it would be very churlish not to love has been the huge increase in student enrolments, and the number of both men and women now possessing university degrees. The Minister’s own initial projection of a 15 per cent increase in enrolments for the 1989-91 triennium was rapidly outstripped, with an actual increase of 34 per cent. And the growth in degrees has continued dramatically ever since, with ABS figures released earlier this week showed that for what for a long time has seemed the very aspirational target – of 40 per cent of Australians aged between 25 and 34 having degrees – has just about now been met: the current figure is 39.4 per cent.

But what has manifestly not been at all loved by a great, and I suspect increasing, number of observers and participants in the Australian system – with the charge now being very articulately led by Glyn Davis in his Boyer Lectures and now The Australian Idea of a University – is the extraordinary uniformity of our higher education institutions. As Glyn describes it:

The unified national system accepted only one idea of a university, and made it the national standard. The raft of new universities that emerged from the Dawkins reforms were designed in this single image [which Glyn describes as the ‘metropolitan’ university, created initially in Sydney and Melbourne emulating counterparts in London, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dublin], each a public, self-governing institution established through legislation, strongly tipped toward educating the professions, meritocratic, non-residential and comprehensive, with a mission that required [both] teaching and research. (p.91)

I am wholeheartedly in agreement with Glyn when he argues that Australia’s universities needs what we manifestly do not now have – a policy environment that allows innovation and rewards difference – and that in its absence, in a world of ever increasing global opportunity and flexibility, this is going to make them ever more vulnerable. As I have argued in my own recent memoir:

In a country with nearly forty publicly funded universities, not every one of them is going to be able to perform as well as others on all fronts – in the quality of their research, in the quality of the teaching and learning experience they can provide, and in the quality of the other community contributions they can make, including helping drive public policymaking. The pretence that they can, by imposing the same basic funding and regulatory regime on everyone, is distorting efficient resource allocation. This in turn diminishes the capacity of the very best of our universities to perform, as they should be able to, at top-ten or top-twenty in the world level, but at the same time does not guarantee optimal performance by the others in research, teaching or anything else. Innovation is hampered; disciplines are disappearing as institutions decide they can no longer afford to offer them; and there are perverse incentives to enrol ever more students and crowd hundreds of them into large lecture theatres they are ever less-interested in attending. (Incorrigible Optimist, p. 315-16)

And as Glyn and I both note, John Dawkins himself has been arguing in recent times that his own now-thirty-year-old system demands a drastic overhaul, saying that universities should have greater freedom to choose the kind of institution they want to be, able for example to opt to be teaching only, eschewing research to concentrate on high quality outcomes for graduates. He emphasises the importance of more transparent price signals and effective competition, and the need accordingly to allow some significant fee flexibility, albeit with safeguards to prevent gouging.

One obvious pathway to a more diverse system is fee deregulation, of the kind proposed under the Coalition government in 2014-15. This would have replaced the one-size-fits-all system with enough competition to allow real diversity to develop, but this died politically, not least because it was accompanied by big proposed funding cuts which made the total package almost impossible to sell, even to those, like me, sympathetic to deregulation. And I am not sure that those of us in this camp ever came up with a good enough answer to the access and equity issues inevitably raised by the prospect of higher fees being charged by the nation’s highest ranking universities, given the absence still in this country of a compensating philanthropy culture even remotely resembling that of the United States

Glyn has his own thoughtful ideas on how to now move towards a more diverse and responsive system, including developing a single over-arching policy perspective for the whole post-school sector, including the training institutions; providing funding for teaching and research that reflects actual costs; creating new universities to accommodate growth, and in particular new specialist institutions, excellent in defined areas, and straddling vocational as well as university qualifications; and reviving a new Tertiary Education Commission to bring a sector wide perspective to policy design and implementation. It’s a short book, but one crammed full of analysis and ideas, very much forward as well as backward looking.

Australia’s universities, as all of us involved in the system one way or another are acutely aware, place plenty of other policy challenges in addition to those given close attention in these two books.

  • One obvious one is finding some way, sooner rather than later, of hedging against the enormous financial risk associated with the dependence now of so many of our universities on fee-paying international students, not least when so many now come from a single country which is very easily capable of turning off the supply tap if the political mood changes.
  • Another is to meet the needs of socially and economically disadvantaged students. While lower-income students have obviously been part of the huge increase in overall numbers, as a proportion of the whole they remain well under 20 per cent, and drop-out rates continue to be significantly higher than for other students. It is clear that, among other strategies, ways just have to be found to provide more financial support to cover not just the fees but the living costs of those whose family circumstances make full-time, or even significant part-time, study impossible. More philanthropic support, not so far part of the Australian culture, is going to be critical here.
  • Another challenge, is to maintain totally intact, with no qualifications whatever, the traditional idea of the university as the home of free speech, of the clash of ideas, of unconstrained argument and debate. Lines have to be drawn, and administrators’ spines stiffened, against manifestly unconscionable demands for protection against ideas and arguments claimed to be offensive. If they are not, universities will lose their whole raison d’etre.

Perhaps the most basic challenge of all for universities, however much diversity we succeed in injecting back into the sector, is simply to maintain their relevance over the long haul ahead. A small issue now, but one that could become a much bigger problem later – particularly if university teaching methods do not adapt to the new environment – is the prospect of very bright students bypassing university altogether because they believe they can get the teaching they need from online platforms, and learning by doing in entrepreneurial settings.

Part of the necessary response here is to re-create a sense of what is the distinctive value-added of a university. This is not, and never has been – even in the traditional professional disciplines like medicine, law and engineering – purely vocational. As my Oxford Chancellor friend Chris Patten has put it: ‘Universities of every sort, if in different ways, should introduce students to the joy and discipline of scholarship, to the challenge and excitement of personal intellectual achievement, to the social and historical context of knowledge and learning.’

In a world where the content and context of employment-relevant knowledge is changing all the time, and lifelong learning is going to have to become the norm for anyone who hopes to stay employed, the role of universities must be to teach students not what to think, but how to think. The vital importance of a traditional liberal education has never been greater, and it is crucial to the health of this nation, and the wider world, that we stay passionate about providing it.

The authors of these two books manifestly share that passion. We are indebted to Glyn Davis, and to Stuart McIntyre, Andre Brett and Gwilym Croucher for the insights and stimulation these books provide, and to Louise Adler and all who sail with her at Melbourne University Press for performing so admirably their scholarly and public policy duty in publishing them. I am delighted to declare The Australian Idea of a University and No End of a Lesson duly launched.