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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.