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Good, Bad and Ugly: Public perceptions of Australian universities

Good: there is significant public support for universities.

Recent research (here and here) in Australia tells us something about public perception of universities. It suggests that over 75 per cent of Australians have a positive view of them. Near 80 per cent said they would encourage their kids or young people they know to attend. This is unsurprising when near 40 per cent of 25-34 year olds now hold a Bachelor’s degree.

Bad: Australians don’t know what universities actually do.

Only around one in ten people report they are aware of the different fields studied at university. Near half say that universities exist solely to educate for skilled and professional jobs. When business is asked this question, 75 per cent give the same answer.

When asked what sort of research universities should undertake, over half respond that focus should be exclusively on research that leads to practical outcomes or objectives. Narrow this to people who by their own report have had ‘little to do with universities’ and it is closer to 70 per cent.

It is hard to know exactly what ‘practical’ means to different people, but it is not a far stretch to claim that universities are seen as instruments for either personal or national economic benefit. They should make lives better in obvious ways. Jobs and medical advancements: making bucks and saving babies.

This can be confronting to supporters of higher education who still firmly believe that pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake is the cornerstone of the enterprise.

And public support for higher education can be surprisingly soft, with almost 60 per cent of people rating their support for universities on the milder end of the spectrum. (Unsurprisingly people that have greater involvement in universities – students, staff and parents – are stronger supporters).

Ugly: By one report nearly a quarter of businesses and general public say they oppose international education.

If accurate this is very worrying, given the importance that international students have for the vibrancy and viability of Australian universities, not to mention their host cities. It seems all the features of the contemporary university system in Australia are not universally supported.

There is clearly scope for institutions to do a better job of explaining what they do to the public. What is fuelling public perception of universities, and how it might be changed, is worth pausing on, especially in tight fiscal times for government.

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36 Comments sorted by

  1. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    Interesting!

    'Australians don’t know what universities actually do ... Near half say that universities exist solely to educate for skilled and professional jobs.'

    I'm not sure you can imply the public are 'wrong', when many people within universities openly say this should be their primary purpose. I remember arguments about this at Melbourne Uni in the 80s.

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    1. Michael Mihajlovic

      Retired

      In reply to James Jenkin

      Hi James,
      I am sure you will agree that whilst universities play a vital role "to educate for skilled and professional jobs", the primary purpose of universities is research and development of knowledge in all fields and disciplines of eandeavour. Universities are the fountains of all knowledge and anyone who suggests otherwise is 'wrong".

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    2. Roger Matthews

      Business Development Manager

      In reply to Michael Mihajlovic

      Hi Michael

      I think that herein lies a major problem. If as you say, the primary purpose of universities is research and development of knowledge in all fields, this is a 'purpose' that governments are increasingly unwilling or unable to fund. So if universities wish to continue with this they will need an entirely new business model.

      Funding research and development of knowledge in all fields by cross subsidies from learners through their student fees is also increasingly untenable and unsustainable.

      If universities wish to be primarily research institutions they need to find clients who are willing to pay, and urgently.

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    3. Michael Mihajlovic

      Retired

      In reply to Roger Matthews

      Hi Roger,
      Funding is a separate issue and is the responsibility of Government.
      Unfortunately in our Materialistic world it is extremely difficult to find philanthropists willing or able to support such endeavour.
      So, if the Government of the day is not visionary or responsible enough we will fall behind the rest of the world.

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    4. Roger Matthews

      Business Development Manager

      In reply to Michael Mihajlovic

      But this is not an Australasian issue, the same government freeze in funding at best or withdrawal of funding and the associated skyrocketing of student fees can be seen all over the world.

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    5. Michael Mihajlovic

      Retired

      In reply to Roger Matthews

      Hi Roger,

      I am not sure of the accuracy of your information, but, I am certain that the advancement of knowledge in universities will be supported by most developed countries in the world such as Germany, France, England, Japan and the US as well as prominent developing ones such as India and China.

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    6. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to James Jenkin

      Compared to even the 1990s, Australian universities have turned away academic excellence and research to emphasise baby-sitting and social work group therapy.

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  2. John Crest

    logged in via email @live.com.au

    I have the misfortune to work with a lady whose son missed out on his preferred choices at university this year.

    Of course, this is not because her son's high school results were so poor, it's because the universities are letting too many Asians in at the expense of "our kids".

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    1. Michael Mihajlovic

      Retired

      In reply to John Crest

      Hi John,
      I am not sure of the veracity of your claim, but, may I suggest the following solution for your friend's son.
      My daughter did not have enough points to get into tha faculty of Law so she applied for an Accounting degree and part way through that qualified for Law, based on her results, and now has two degrees.

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    2. John Crest

      logged in via email @live.com.au

      In reply to Michael Mihajlovic

      Oh no, I don't really care enough to help.

      She is merely hiding the embarrassment of her son's failures behind xenophobia.

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    3. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to John Crest

      It could be.

      There are about 420,000 students on student visas in Australia.

      Australia now has 450% more foreign students per capita than the US, and 270% more than Germany, and is second in the world for foreign students as a % of total students (behind Luxemburg).

      Nearly 29% of foreign students are Chinese, and about 12% are Indian.

      Australia pays for the infrastructure of having those foreign students, and quite probably this number of foreign students is pushing up the cost of rent in city areas, as well as taking up considerable number of part time jobs that could go to Australians, such as the unemployed or semi-retired.

      I personally find it annoying when people say that foreign students add “vibrancy” or something similar.

      They are now saying that Australian students are lacking, and they are implying foreign students should be given preference over Australian students.

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    4. Darren G

      logged in via email @yahoo.com

      In reply to John Crest

      You worded your first post there a little awkwardly, John, - it looks like youre making a racist statement and not the lady with the son.

      My understanding is that foreign student places don't affect the locals - and overseas student fees are used, in part, to fund local places. Others would know more about that than me. Subjects such as law are immune to overseas students because without perfect English its not possible to do such a degree and an Australian law degree is largely useless to most foreigners unless perhaps there was a very strong specialisation in international law etc - which would be difficult to obtain at just one university.

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    5. Darren G

      logged in via email @yahoo.com

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Foreign students pay for the infrastructure - that's why their fees are so high. Pushing up rents? Well you don't think greedy landlords and mismanaged tax laws and planning and development policies have anything to do with that?

      You personally find it annoying? I personally like the vibrancy and the strong links these students later build between countries. This morning I had a coffee with a former foreign student looking to bring between $100 million - $2billion into this country in the form of investments - and you find such people "annoying"?

      No-one is stopping locals or retired people taking up part time jobs - that happens to be a question of the employer chosing. and I think employers can be trusted to make that choice by themselves.

      Your last paragraph is completey unsupported by any facts - "they are now saying that Australian students are lacking.." and "they are implying...

      Hogwash. Honestly.

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    6. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Darren G

      The “strong links" between countries now means an Indian company has plans to dig a hole in one of our World Heritage areas, to save itself a tiny bit of revenue.

      http://www.abc.net.au/environment/articles/2013/12/11/3909685.htm

      I can imagine the consequences of an Australia company wanting to dig a hole in the Taj Mahal.

      Australia is being ripped off big time.

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    7. John Crest

      logged in via email @live.com.au

      In reply to Darren G

      I guess my sarcasm wasn't as evident as I intended it to be.

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    8. Darren G

      logged in via email @yahoo.com

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Don't see the relevance, Dale. Clive Palmer et al want to dump crap all over the Great Barrier Reef - if we're stupid enough to let anyone do this sort of thing in any of our world heritage areas then Id say its us who are the stupid ones, behaving stupidly. Doesn't really matter where the company trying to do the stupid things comes from; theyre only doing what we let them. If the Indians wont let us dig a hole in the Taj Mahal then that just means theyre not as dumb as we are. But again, whats the relevance of all that?

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    9. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Darren G

      We are educating those students to accept certain "values".

      Another Franklin is on the way, and we will see how many foregin students line up at the protests.

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    10. Darren G

      logged in via email @yahoo.com

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      We seem to be on a different planet, Dale.

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    11. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Darren G

      To make it more clear, a real test for foreign students is approaching, to see how much they really do care about this country.

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    12. Darren G

      logged in via email @yahoo.com

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Make that a different universe...

      Dale, with all due respect, what on earth are you going on about? You seem to be suggesting that foreign students have to be Australian patriots or nationalists. Do I really need to point out they are foreigners? Youre probably using a computer made in an Asian country - does that mean you should be wildly pro-chinese/Vietnamese/Taiwanese/Korean government?

      Your last two comments simply make no sense.

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    13. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Darren G

      I think he believes that Australians should use only stuff made in Australia by Australians. He's yet to accept Ricardo's theory of comparative advantage published in 1817 or even Adam Smith: 'If a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we ourselves can make it, better buy it of them with some part of the produce of our own industry, employed in a way in which we have some advantage' (The Wealth of Nations, 1776).

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    14. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      When Australia is second in the world for foreign students as a % of total students, (behind Luxemburg), it would be opportune to think about why other countries do not have so many foreign students as well.

      That is, what are the advantages AND disadvantages of so many foreign students.

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    15. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Interesting question. The UK Government was one of the first to promote higher education as an export industry, and Australia followed its example. However, Australian universities' enrolments of international students were modest initially, and they didn't start to increase strongly until the Australian Governments' funding cuts started to bite in the mid 1990s. Another factor is the considerable autonomy Australian universities have enjoyed in contrast with many universities in continental Europe and public universities in several US States.

      I suggest advantages and disadvantages are mixed. I am particularly concerned about the programs in which international students are > 30%, currently mainly in business but previously in IT.

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    16. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      IT in Australia is just about dead.

      Open a computer magazine published in Australia, and it would be highly unlikely there is any hardware or software from Australia in it.

      There was previously a study undertaken in the US showing that if universities were given more money, they simply spent it on buildings and administration.

      In fact, various other studies have shown US students became less knowledgeable as they proceeded through their course, and, “The average foreign student studying in an American college learned nothing about the country's history and its civic institutions, according to the study.”

      http://www.rense.com/general78/dumber.htm

      Now I don’t know if similar surveys have occurred in this country also, but with some many foreign students in the country, such surveys should occur.

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    17. Kerry List

      Writer

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      WOW 420,000.

      Insane.

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    18. Kerry List

      Writer

      In reply to Darren G

      Yes we do Darren, and it would pay to listen to people who think there are too many foreigners here already.

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    19. Darren G

      logged in via email @yahoo.com

      In reply to Kerry List

      I don't know which of my comments you are replying to Kerry but I can tell you that I was born in England and arrived in this country when I was 3. I am a citizen, But am I one of your "foreigners" of whom you appear to be so afraid? How many other "foreigners" like me do you know? How many people do you know who are "foreigners" but you don't even know it?

      Why does it make any difference if someone here is a "foreigner" - most people in this country are largely ignorant of the real cultural…

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    20. Kerry List

      Writer

      In reply to Darren G

      This is a self serving argument - you admit you are an immigrant and you proceed to justify yourself on this basis. I detect you are being quite patronising in your post, and I don't think I deserved it.

      It is a political decision for the people living here before you to dictate the amount of people here in the future, the immigration rates, etc. It is not xenophobic necessarily to restrict immigration although someone like you would be quick to think so. Don't think it is personal - it is not…

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    21. Darren G

      logged in via email @yahoo.com

      In reply to Kerry List

      Kerry, perhaps as an immigrant myself I have a different view to you on this and you are not aware of this different view. It certainly appears that way to me.

      Frankly, we are all immigrants. That's the point. You and I have no more right to this land than anyone else. And whether you want "it preserved" is beside the point - history marches on and in the end nothing is "preserved". History and cultural recollection doesn't determine what we are or who we are - its what we think our history and…

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  3. Russell Hamilton

    Librarian

    Don't know about others but my impression of universities now, compared to when I was studying in the 70s, is that they are much more like businesses, much more like factories, and must seem quite impersonal to their students.

    I think we had, then, a more intense experience - I wonder if many more students now are working and don't have time for campus life. The 70s were a time of experiment and argument - and there was a lot of that to experience on campus. Plus we had much smaller tutorials - in the case of one of the units I did, I was in a tutorial of one - one undergraduate with one professor!

    One thing that surprises me about universities is how little they try to involve alumni, or the public, in the life of the university. Presumably they still have lots of visiting academics who come to give lectures, and couldn't some of those lectures/talks be advertised (email lists aren't that hard to run) and available to alumni / the public?

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    1. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      Russell, that was back in the days when universities were for educating the top 5%, nowadays, it's about the top 70%. Completely hopeless.

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    2. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      And well educated we were: Curtin U (back when it was an Institute of Technology) decided a grand tour of Europe would be a good thing, and arranged loans for us with the then state-owned bank, and off we went, wending our way around Europe, visiting and being lectured by European worthies .... of course it was academically rigorous, we had to keep a diary of what we were learning. It was FANTASTIC.

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    3. Dirk Baltzly

      Professor of Philosophy -- University of Tasmania

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      Russell: I think most universities at least TRY to advertise public events but it's often hard to cut through all the information that washes through everyone's in-box or social media to reach your audience. Most universities, my own included, will have a link on their homepage for public events. The other thing we are trying to do is to record public lectures and roundtable discussions to make them available to people when it is convenient for them. So, for example, here's the Martineau Lecture of last year. Prof. G. Lloyd gave an interesting talk on the way in which the concept of compassion is invoked in debates about asylum seekers. If you are interested, you can tune it in any time from the comfort of your laptop. http://www.utas.edu.au/channel-utas

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  4. Gavin Moodie
    Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct professor at RMIT University

    The misperceptions and resulting opposition to international students is most worrying. I suggest that universities work with others who benefit from international education: landlords, food vendors, the transport industry, the tourist industry, and those who benefit from international students' cheap labour such as taxi owners. It would be good if these as a group lead government lobbying and public information.

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    1. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Taxi owners?

      That sums it up.

      The so-called $12 billion education industry is based on what foreign students spend when in the country, but if a foreign student earns money by driving a taxi and then spends it in Australia, it is considered an “export”.

      Meanwhile those part time jobs will be in much demand if the pension is reduced or eliminated, and retires need extra income to survive and avoid having to live on cans of dog food.

      What Australia needs most is for Australians to reduce imports and to spend more on locally made products to develop local industry, and it is totally improbable foreign students are going to help in that regard.

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  5. Andrei Reztsov

    Mathematician, Senior Research Officer at the ACCM at UNSW Australia

    It seems to me that in this article two important questions were (wrongly) mixed and so the discussion has internal logical inconsistency. Let me explain. The Author wrote: “It suggests that over 75 per cent of Australians have a positive view of them. Near 80 per cent said they would encourage their kids or young people they know to attend.” Second statement tells us that 80% of parents believe that their kids should study for University degree. First statement could be considered as the respondents were asked about the comparison of Australian Universities with those overseas. In the text of Article we mostly discuss the question “Are Australian Universities good or better to send kids overseas?” (Although not every parent can afford this).

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