The future of the Australian University
Ideas & Society, 1.7.15
It’s hard not to notice a malaise in higher education today – or, at least, a sense pervading much contemporary HE literature that all is not well, and that things are probably getting worse.
For example, the (anonymous) author of a recent article in the HES, entitled ‘Bean counters now in charge of our Uni’s, argued that “what is happening at Australian universities these days is even more transactional, technocratic, institutionalised, corporate-mindset, not to say Aspergers, than ever”.
Along similar lines, Michael Gillings and Jane Williamson from Macquarie University, writing in the The Conversation earlier this month as part of its series on ‘What are universities for?’, have blamed recent scandals relating to plagiarism and academic standards on the fact that universities are increasingly run as businesses which has resulted in the ‘commodification’ of education that treats students as consumers. This, they argue, creates the perfect conditions for academic dishonesty and cheating.
Raymond Gaita, perhaps the most despairing of observers, argued in 2011 in an essay in Meanjin that the incursion into universities of ‘managerial newspeak’ has meant that universities are now ‘dominated by a largely instrumental conception of their nature’. This has led to a loss of any collective sense of the intrinsic value of study, or of university as anything more than ‘a high flying institution, three stages past kindergarten that excels at research’.
We are also regularly told that staff morale is rock bottom in the sector, and that students are more adrift academically (and no doubt cheating on a bigger scale) than ever before.
These are chilling assessments indeed, with some recurrent themes. But I want to argue today that they are not entirely accurate – that our current circumstance is, at worst, more ambiguous than these accounts suggest; and, at best, a cause more for optimism than gloom.
But I also want to argue that optimism is only justified if two conditions are satisfied. The first is that we are able to recuperate the idea of a university to something that will serve us well in the conditions that will foreseeably surround and condition it.
The second is that we have a very clear sense of the challenges about to confront the sector, especially those arising from digital technologies. These two conditions are related – because we cannot rise to the challenges of the future if our dominant narrative about our universities is simply one of decline from past glories, that ‘things aren’t what they used to be’.
I’m not convinced that the literature I’ve referred to is particularly helpful in this respect, coming as it does from what might be described as the ‘decline and fall’ school of thought – that is, that the last 30 years have seen a progressive decline, or shrinkage, in the idea of a university from some sort of ideal type or golden era – a falling way from the ‘unworldly university’, as Glyn Davis has characterised it. It is doubtful whether such a golden age ever existed, especially in Australia which has always had a much more pragmatic and instrumental view of its universities than, say, the UK; but, more importantly, such a narrative of decline will not equip us well to navigate the challenges of the next 30 years – the period, after all, in which our youngest colleagues starting their careers now will have their lives in the sector. We owe it to them, if nothing else, to reanimate and recuperate the idea of a university in a way that looks forward, not back.
A good starting point is to recognise that universities are now, and have always been, continually evolving institutions that have taken successively different but historically contingent forms. For example, Ronald Barnett has argued that universities have evolved over time through a series of ideal types – from the metaphysical university, through the research university, to, now, the entrepreneurial university, and will continue to evolve into the future. I’ll come back to these terms later.
Barnett also argues that while, up to now, there has been an inevitability about how the different ideas of a university have unfolded over time, being historically determined, universities now have choices open to them about the form they take, and about the underlying idea of a university that animates that form. He suggests that the question “just what is it to be a university?” has rarely been asked in the past, because it has not been necessary to ask it – the idea and the form it has taken have had an historic inevitability. He argues that this is no longer the case, and that universities have reached an ‘existential moment’ in which there are choices to be made. Part of those choices, I would suggest consist of how universities choose to rise to the challenges about to come their way.
I will come back later to this question of the future of the university, and specifically the Australian university, and how they might rise to this existential moment. But before looking into the future, I want to provide a quick overview of trends in the sector over the last 30 years, and what has brought us to this point; I will then look at the policy and funding choices that confront the sector in Australia in the foreseeable future. I’ll address some of the external challenges that will confront the sector in the next thirty years, and return finally to look at what the future might hold for a recuperated idea of a university.
So, first, what has changed in the last thirty years – the period which for many still in the system (including me) represents the span of an academic career. I want to approach this through my own experience as an academic, first in the UK and then, for the last 20 years, here in Australia.
When I began my academic career in the early 1980’s, questions about the purposes or benefits of universities were rarely asked. There was an acceptance that a university education was a good thing in and of itself – self-evident and intrinsic. Universities played an important role in supplying graduates into some of the professions, a role that was probably more pronounced in Australia than in the UK – as Glyn Davis has argued, ‘professional training dominated Australian Universities from their earliest expression’ where ‘the dominant tradition was pragmatic and vocational’. Nevertheless, provided they met the requirements of the professions, Universities were left alone to get on with doing whatever they did largely free of external interference.
At the same time, there was little talk in those days of curriculum, or of learning objectives and graduate outcomes; students were rarely, if ever, asked for feedback on their teachers; and academic staff were left largely unsupervised in their performance. Quality assurance was something done in factories, not Universities.
By the same token, there was then almost no talk of Universities having strategic plans, key performance indicators or targets; ‘senior management’, to the extent that it existed, was not seen as having much managerial prerogative in an organisation that was mostly collegial and self governing. Universities without extrinsic goals had no need of managers to steer towards them. Research was important, but largely unguided by any sense of institutional or national priorities. The sector at this time was also comparatively small and therefore highly selective.
How things have changed. None of the above conditions any longer apply. Our lives are infused with technology; we are held accountable and performance-measured by ourselves, external agencies, international rankings and social media; we are funded on our outcomes and performance; competition between Universities for students, staff and research funding is fierce; government research funding is increasingly directed to national priorities, and governments expect to see tangible commercial returns from that research.
Alongside all of these trends, the unassailable fact is the growth in, or the ‘massification’ of, the HE sector. The number of FT students in Australia in 1989 was just under 300k, and is projected to rise to just over 700k in 2017. The growth rate has accelerated over time, with the growth between 2007 and 2013 alone amounting to an extra 200k students, the equivalent of 3 or 4 Monashes. This has had a profound effect on the place of higher education in Australian society. Glyn Davis estimates that in 1966, 1 in 140 Australians attended University; by 2013, that figure was 1 in 25.
Three key policy drivers –
- the Dawkins reforms of the late 80’s and early 90’s which created the unified national system and increased the number of universities from 19 to 39;
- the stimulation of the international student market from the mid-90’s, such that international student revenue now accounts for about 30% of university revenues and about 25% of the total student population; and
- the demand driven system, or the uncapping of undergraduate places, that came into effect in January 2012, but which most universities began anticipating much earlier (eg, from about 2007)
Another driver of growth has been the fact that Australian Universities have successfully established a firm grip on pathways into the professions – firmer in some respects than their UK counterparts, where the cult of the amateur retains its aura. Status-seeking professions have happily joined in this slow but steady increase in credentialism, such that the vast majority of university degrees – probably about 90% - now carry some form of external accreditation from a professional body, and most professions require an accredited degree as a condition of membership. This means that there are large swathes of curriculum taught in universities over which the universities themselves have little control.
What is behind these trends, and what impact has it had on the idea and form of the university? And what does it tell us about the future?
Universities are now seen as intruments of economic policy and workforce planning, as well as the gatekeepers of professional standards. Future economic growth and competitiveness is seen as critically dependent on the availability of a workforce with the skills and knowledge that a university qualification bestows; and university research is seen as a source of future economic growth, if only it can be brought to market more effectively. Universities have this been brought into the close embrace of government to an unprecedented extent.
All of this has entailed significant increases in government expenditure on higher education teaching and research. This has brought with it a change in the regulatory regime to which universities are subject, involving a mix of deregulation and centralisation in government policy.
With respect to student numbers, centralised planning has given way to a quasi-market, in which universities can enrol as many students as they wish in whichever disciplines they choose – the demand driven system. This is part of a Faustian bargain in which universities agreed, in return for uncapping of numbers, to subject themselves to a new form of regulation, which effectively cedes universities’ self accrediting status to the concept of registration by TEQSA.
This introduction of a quasi-market has had a profound effect on the sector – it has undoubtedly increased competition for students, and has led to greater visibility of public comparisons of university performance. Within the university, this has led in turn to stronger emphasis on measuring and monitoring staff performance, and the elevation of the student to the status, in some respects, of customer.
So far as research is concerned, and by contrast, the tendency in government policy has been towards greater centralisation and an increased emphasis on national priorities. Similarly, governments increasingly expect to see a commercial return on their investment in research. All of this is evident in current government policy, with recent announcements about CRCs, Industry Growth Centres, National Research Priorities and the Commercialisation of Research.
At a conceptual level, these trends are part of the shift from what Ronald Barnett has called the ‘Research university’ to the ‘Entrepreneurial university’ – from the ‘university in itself’, which ‘prided itself on its separateness from society’ and the ‘uselessness of knowledge’, to the ‘university for itself’, which, as he puts it, ‘has its being amidst the marketisation of public services’, where what counts in knowledge production is impact, and where ‘knowledge is valued in terms of its exchange value before its use value’.
The ‘decline and fall’ literature I referred to earlier will no doubt see all of these trends as the root cause of the current malaise affecting the sector – the increased marketisaton of the sector, the loss of autonomy in the selection of research topics, the instrumentalism that drives student choice and thus the culture of the university more generally, plus the increased red tape that goes with greater internal and external scrutiny.
But, as I said before, I am more of an optimist; at any rate, I think the evidence is more ambiguous than the decline and fall school of thought would have us believe. Indeed, there is much to celebrate in the achievements of the university sector during this period of growth.
For one thing, universities are considered to be important – we are now much closer to the centre of public policy and public concern than perhaps ever before, as the recent debate around fee deregulation illustrates; and higher education policy may even be a vote shifter at election time. This cannot be a bad thing.
Moreover, student satisfaction has steadily risen as teaching and learning has been taken more seriously; research output has increased in volume and quality, such that Australia performs well for its size in the international rankings; there has been a significant shift from theoretical to applied research as universities seek to respond to industry needs; and universities have become more inclusive, especially of low SES and disabled students. Women now account for more than half of all students at university. All of this amounts to a significant lift in the sector’s productivity and performance over the last 20-30 years, and represents a huge return on the nation’s investment in the sector.
And I suspect that even staff morale is not as bad as survey results sometimes lead us to believe – as the late David Watson wrote in his book ‘The Question of Morale: Managing Happiness and Unhappiness in University Life’, academic staff responses to questions about morale are often complex and contradictory – while morale is usually described as ‘rock bottom’, questions to individual academic staff about what they are working on “will be full of life, of optimism and of enthusiasm for the task at hand”. The key variable seems to be the extent to which staff feel they exercise control – so while staff may have a positive view about morale in their own small work group and their immediate projects, they are likely to believe that morale overall in an institution is low and probably declining.
So, there are grounds for optimism, in spite of the ‘decline and fall’ school of thought. But in any case, as I said at the beginning, I don’t believe that we can turn back the clock to earlier modes of the university, no matter how much we might wish for it. Wider forces that we have limited capacity to control drive the various successive modes of the university, and the ideas that animate it. We may lament the passing of the unworldly or research university model, if indeed it ever existed in its purest form here in Australia (which is unlikely), but we have to prepare for ourselves for what is coming by being ready to embrace the future and the possible forms of the university that it may entail.
So, what of the future?
The Australian university sector is in part the product of government funding and policy. To date, this has produced a remarkably uniform sector – or as Glyn Davis has put it, the system has created an ‘imperative to standardisation’ around the Australian norm of universities that are “autonomous, professional, comprehensive, secular, public and commuter”. Attempts to deviate from the norm, begun at universities like La Trobe, have been pulled back to the conformist centre. One measure of the uniformity of the Australian sector is that almost all Australian Universities are doctoral awarding institutions. The equivalent figure in more diverse sectors like the US is 28% measured by share of total higher education enrolment.
To Glyn’s list, I would add the characteristic of size – because Australian universities, including our best, are very large by international standards, some with operating budgets close to $2bn a year. In other countries, there is often an inverse correlation between size and prestige – Harvard and Oxford, for example, would be small regional universities in Australian terms.
This imperative to standardisation reflects the uniform set of incentives government dangles in front of the system – government gets what it funds and regulates for. But this may be about to break down. The inevitable unfolding of successive ideal types may, as Barnett has suggested, have reached an existential moment ‘that has optionality written into it’. This may be as true for Australia, as elsewhere, for much the same reasons.
I start with funding. I suspect that we have reached the outer limits of government’s willingness to sustain the higher education system at the current scale and unit of resource. In the last two years, both sides of politics have proposed cuts to the unit of resource – that is, the amount paid to universities to teach each student. Policy makers now face a trilemma: of ensuring affordability to government, affordability to students and ensuring that universities have adequate resources to do the job properly.
Of course, the case for increasing government support for universities should always be pushed hard – very hard – and we should never accept as inevitable a declining level of public subsidy. But the challenge for governments is that of managing and sustaining growth – as the Carnegie Foundation has put it
“As a system grows, it emerges from the obscurity of the relatively small elite system with its relatively modest demands on national resources, and becomes an increasingly substantial competitor for public expenditures along with housing, welfare, and defence “
In a sense, the system has become a victim of its own success - or at least, of its own scale and importance.
So, assuming that we are not on the brink of a new golden era of public subsidy of higher education, there are two broad directions policy could take now.
The first would be to ask students to pay more, so as to reduce the role of government in funding universities – or, more accurately, further to reduce the role of government, given that the government contribution to university revenues has declined from over 80% in 1989 to about 40% now. The Pyne reform package offered an extreme version of this broad policy direction, namely complete deregulation of fees, but there are other less dramatic options at this end of the policy spectrum.
The second direction, at the other end of the spectrum, is to restrain growth in the system, and perhaps even to reduce it, in order maintain the current levels of public subsidy and contain increases in student contributions. A version of this will, I suspect, form the core of Labor’s policy that it will take to the next election. Any recapping will entail at least some return to centralised planning and control of student numbers across disciplines.
At its core, the question here is one of a trade off – how much do we value scale and accessibility on the one hand over maintaining student contributions at current levels? I suspect we are close to having to decide how we want to trade these two values against each other.
If, as I expect, each political party will be taking diametrically opposed answers to this to the next election, then we are at an interesting point in higher education policy in this country – will we go down the deregulation route, or some version of it, or return to a more capped system and more centralised control?
My own view is that some form of fee flexibility will be needed as part of an overall package, and that it is inevitable in the long run. I hold that view for two reasons:
First, I believe that the demand driven system should be maintained. It has been a great innovation for Australia. It has allowed institutions to increase enrolments in areas of need – especially in parts of the country where participation rates are low – and to address workforce shortages, especially in STEM and Health disciplines. It has increased participation amongst disadvantaged groups. On balance, I would prefer to see that system maintained even if at the expense of higher student contributions.
Second, the current system offers overwhelming incentive to universities to grow. This is because remaining static in size will not cover the year on year increase in costs that every university faces, or fund the research aspirations of each institution. So universities, especially those keen to feed the rankings monster, respond by taking more students to make up the difference. This imperative to growth will ultimately destroy some of the weaker institutions, as the larger and more prestigious universities bite deeper and deeper into their markets in pursuit of that growth. To prevent this, Universities need an alternative strategy for revenue growth, such as fee flexibility in some form, for the sector as a whole to survive. Otherwise it will, almost literally, eat itself.
So, there are some big choices ahead. If a more market oriented solution is adopted, such as fee deregulation, then I suspect the consequences would be profound – in particular for diversity in the sector, as different universities pursue different trade offs between scale and price, and between teaching and research. The ‘existential moment’ would have arrived in full force. If, on the other hand, there is a return to a more centralised, planned model, then much will depend on what sort of sector government wants to plan for – in such a system, government will get what it sets out to achieve, including diversity from the norm if it wants it.
Until then, we face uncertainty. But these uncertainties are as nothing compared to those likely to flow from broader structural changes in the economy and society, to which I now turn.
In her excellent contribution to the recent CEDA Report on Australia’s Future Workforce, Deakin’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Jane Den Hollander outlines some of the trends likely to affect universities in the forseeable future.
She argues that the fact that the internet is now the primary platform for creating and sharing knowledge means that “universities are no longer the gatekeepers of knowledge” and that students are no longer passive consumers of knowledge but active participants in its co-creation. She argues that technology enabled higher education “requires a mindset change” in which universities must focus on “what students want and what employers are looking for in graduates”. Students expect from universities what they experience in other aspects of their lives - services that are customer focused, on demand, and available 24/7; and they “expect to be educated to compete for the jobs of the future”.
She discusses MOOCs, and how they allow universities to exploit the major technology trends of automation, big data analytics and customisation; and how they enable students to unbundle their degrees, to take only those courses they require, when they require them. This, she says, brings into question the nature of a university education:
“If a series of digital badges from a selection of MOOCS could provide an internationally recognised assessment of achievement, what could this mean for three and four year degrees? In a global market, why should courses be tied to a western ecclesiastical calendar?”
Jane’s piece inevitably raises more questions than it answers, but when combined with the stark policy choices that now face our politicians, it feeds my sense that universities now are on the brink of potentially radical disruption and change – whether driven by a further marketisation of the sector, or by the impact of technology, or a combination of the two.
Which brings me back to the question I started with – what idea of the university will help us adequately to navigate these possible futures, and what form should such a university take? As Barnett argues, the existential moment means that there are a multitude of possible answer to this question – and, responding to Jane Den Hollander’s questions, the ‘technological university’ may be one of those possible answers. I’m not convinced, however that technology, in and of itself, is a sufficient answer to this question of form and idea – technology itself should be an enabler, not the end point.
Barnett himself suggests a range of criteria by which this question might be answered, one of which is an ethical one – “to what degree (he asks) does the vision reflect large ideas as to human and social wellbeing and even flourishing? In what ways could its vision be said to be worthwhile? Does it reflect large human principles such as those of fairness and openness?”
Barnett’s own answer to this question, and one to which I am drawn for reasons I’ll explain in a moment, is what he calls the ‘ecological university’ – that is, a university that is deeply networked to the society around it, in order to make its knowledge resources freely available; but also a university that “that engages actively with the world in order to bring about a better world”. This is, he says, a university ‘for others’, as distinct from the research university (the university in itself) or the ‘entrepreneurial university (the university for itself). The ecological university, he says, “will be an engaged university, a critical and enquiring university and a university-for-development, acting to put its resources to good effect in promoting world well being”.
As I said at the outset, we need to rethink what the university is for in ways that are richer and less impoverished than the ‘decline and fall’ narrative I discussed at the beginning. We need to recuperate the idea of a university that fits our current and likely future circumstance without reverting to an ideal past. If the existential moment is indeed truly upon us, then each university will have its own choices to make about its future idea and form.
Personally, I am drawn to Barnett’s idea of the ecological university both for its intuitive appeal, and for its empirical fit with what we are doing here at La Trobe – after all, we have dedicated our research effort to solving some of the world’s most pressing problems; we have committed to educating our students to be global citizens, who understand sustainability thinking; and we make our knowledge resources freely available, either through the activities of our public intellectuals and our public scholarship, or through our participation in the Easy Access IP scheme.
In short, La Trobe could be seen as an emergent instance of the ecological university, the university for others – and, perhaps, as an exemplar of a more hopeful future for the idea of a university.
I think universities are at an existential moment – there are choices looming ahead, some of which will be forced on us, others that are within our control. I remain fundamentally optimistic about the future of the university in this country and, for the most part, esewhere – but I freely concede that the idea of a university needs some recuperation or renewal.