Time to call an end to the University spin wars?

Dr Jill Murray
Email: Jill.Murray@latrobe.edu.au

The University of Melbourne's obscene publicity spend bore fruit again this week, with a multi-page, colour insert in 'Education Age' (13 October 2008) spruiking its wares. This followed Monash University's high profile 'Passport' advertising campaign last week, and our own University's more modest re-badging with the slogan 'Infinite Possibilities'. Isn't it time for the higher education 'spin wars' to stop?

For one thing, whose money is being thrown away in these window-dressing exercises? Australian Universities are not private institutions, and the bulk of their funding over the years has come from the government, which in turn got the money from tax payers and fee-paying students. While all Universities are trying to boost their alumni donations in an effort to emulate the bank balances of the Ivy League American schools, there is no doubt that at least some of the money we see encouraging us to 'Dream Large' is, well, ours.

At a time when Universities are reducing staff, and crumbling infrastructure and over-crowded classrooms make delivering quality outcomes difficult, why are we wasting public funds in this way? What value is really being added to higher education by these profligate campaigns?

The implication that Melbourne University is unique in permitting students to 'Dream Large' is just as unrealistic as the idea that 'Infinite Possibilities' can only be explored at La Trobe University. In my field of academic endeavour, employment law, academics from all institutions regard each other as peers. I regularly work with colleagues from Universities around Australia and internationally. We know each others' strengths and weaknesses, and regularly draw on particular expertise when required. We meet at national conferences and learn about the curricula at other institutions, thus spreading best practice in teaching this complex field. The so-called best Universities do not have a monopoly on the best experts in my area - to date, the opposite has been the case. People of ability and high reputation are spread throughout institutions.

As a student, I experienced the best and worst of learning experiences at Melbourne University and Oxford University, despite the fact that both are touted as generally superior to many other Australian institutions. The various systems of world rankings have very little to say about the real experience of students within the various Universities.

No doubt the commercialisation of higher education and the aggressive claims to institutional superiority will lead to a drain of expert staff to those campuses which spend the most money on the most sophisticated image. This might lower the capacity of the remaining Universities to meet the most sensible charter there can be for such an institution – the provision of quality, appropriate higher education to citizens of Australia.

So, let's call a truce in the spin wars and put the money back where it belongs. If anything can be learnt from the world's current economic woes, it is that when the packaging of products becomes more significant than their actual content, we are all in trouble.