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.

Thank you.