Opinion- 30 October 2004






The Reversal of Dawkinsisation or Just the Cheapening of the Universities? -- Or

Why Can't The Universities Just Be Like Us?

A "comment-opinion" piece dated October 29 in The Australian Financial Review Focuses on Brendan Nelson's reappointment as Minister for Education, Science and Training and opines, "having won through with his higher education reforms, the education minister had more right than most of his colleagues to be offered another challenging portfolio in which to prove himself. But the prime minister decided otherwise and Nelson has been sent back to plough his old patch," and then asserts, "But this is no bad thing. The university reforms, which will be implemented next year, were a very large step in the right direction but they remain incomplete. Now Nelson gets his chance to fill in the gaps and really stake his claim to be one of the great reforming education ministers."


And what are those gaps?

  1. That the universities' infrastructure in moving inexorably toward a state of irreparable decay?

  2. That the increasing student to staff ratio is militating against fostering universities as institutions of research and learning?

  3. That (1) and (2) are having an increasingly detrimental effect on the recruitment of top-class staff in the face of increasing competition from overseas tertiary institutions?

  4. That there is increasing concern that the university sector will be incapable of supplying what Queensland's Chief Scientist, Peter Andrews estimates are the, "75,000 extra scientists Australia will need in the next six years to build biotechnology and nanotechnology businesses and other knowledge-based industries if the country's international competitiveness is to be maintained, according to a recent estimate."?

No fear -- none of the above.


Of pre-eminent concern to AFR:

The problem is that universities are among the most bureaucratised institutions in Australia. They waste immense amounts of time in a process-oriented approach to staffing issues, which is meant to safeguard individual rights but succeeds only in pouring treacle into the university decision-making machinery.

    Universities also remain heavily union-dominated. They are one of the few industries in which unions retain significant power, and unions expertly use the process-oriented, decision-by-committee approach to impede executive decision-making.

    Last year, facing defeat in the Senate, Nelson withdrew proposed workplace relations reforms from his university reform package. But with the Nationals' Senate win in Queensland yesterday, the government will soon be able to revisit this issue.

The assessment is reminiscent of a submission from Pricewaterhouse Cooper to Dr. Nelson's Higher Education Review of two years ago which quoted the two passages below with which they were in full agreement.

This perspective of a market-driven restructuring of higher education as an industry - while perhaps both alien and distasteful to the academy, is nevertheless an important framework for considering the future of the university.

While the post-secondary education market may have complex cross-subsidies and numerous public misconceptions, it is nevertheless very real and demanding, with the capacity to reward those who can respond to rapid change and punish those who cannot. Universities will have to learn to cope with the competitive pressures of this marketplace while preserving the most important of their traditional values and character.

These social, economic, technological, and market forces are far more powerful than many within the higher education establishment realise. They are driving change at an unprecedented pace, perhaps even beyond the capacity of our colleges and universities to adapt.

There are increasing signs that our current paradigms for higher education, the nature of our academic programs, the organisation of our colleges and universities, the way that we finance conduct, and distribute the services of higher education, may not be able to adapt to the higher education, may not be able to adapt to the demands and realities of our times.
[James Dunderstadt, Leading Higher Education in an Era of Rapid Change, July 2001: p10]

The root cause of the problem with the HE sector is that the structures and systems of governance and leadership in all universities in Australia are unable to meet the change processes of today. This causes a total lack of ability to attract and keep people with strategic thinking ability inside universities at Senate level and in the Vice Chancellery. Unless this is recognised as THE major issue to be addressed then the malaise will continue.
[According to PWC, one of Australia's leading and most respected Directors (unidentified) interviewed for this submission: p10 of submission]

Having determined that the principal problem with the university sector is bureaucracy and unionisation the Fin Review continues:

The next step is to make it easier for universities to enter the Australian market, but state governments have a tight grip over accreditation of new universities and are in no mood to break the existing cartel. One of the barriers preventing new universities getting started is the unrealistic hurdles contained in protocols agreed by the federal and state governments in 2000 which set out criteria which universities must meet.

And goes on to suggest that those criteria must be relaxed so that

Commercial, for-profit universities, some of them servicing only one discipline, already exist in the United States, where they help meet a huge demand for vocationally oriented courses. Some of them are even listed companies. Why should similar institutions not exist in Australia to service students who are looking for a vocational, job-oriented degree?

    In a world in which education is increasingly a globalised commodity, cost inefficiencies in Australian higher education will soon be exposed. And free-trade agreements are likely to open up an avenue for overseas competitors to enter the Australian market regardless of what barriers state governments seek to erect.

The AFR, however, does not advocate that in order to rationalise Australia's 38 public universities a tiered system of research universities and  four year liberal arts (and possibly two year) tertiary institutions must instituted or that a stable and rational funding of the public universities be established, but "Having set the conditions for a higher education market to develop, [Dr Nelson] should step back and let it do its work."


However, the AFR does admonish the minister to "have another look at the added regulation and red tape which he himself imposed on universities in his reform package last year. Much of it is unnecessary and only adds to universities' costs and bulks up their bureaucracy."


Without a doubt with friends like the Fin Review the university sector doesn't need additional enemies.



Alex Reisner

The Funneled Web