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What are the alternative options for higher education to flourish in Australia?

Why Australia needs a new model for universities

Australia is in need of a new model for universities.

That isn’t the impression you get from the delighted students, contented staff and shining buildings pictured on every university website. But that’s a fantasy.

University managers now hire a considerable number of advertising staff to create the pretty picture. Behind the façade are growing signs of trouble.

A vital one is the gap between management and staff.

The CEOs, still called vice-chancellors, are paid up to A$1.3 million a year. Their average package in 2014 was 14 times the starting salary of an entry-level academic working full-time.

Surveys of staff show little belief that these highly paid executives are doing a good job. In the 2015 national survey by the National Tertiary Education Union, over two-thirds of the 7,000 university staff who took part in the survey said changes in the workplace have not been handled well.

Managers evidently don’t trust the staff either. There is a growing mass of surveillance and auditing mechanisms, branding requirements and online control systems imposed on the work of university staff, including research.

Fixed course templates make teaching more controlled and conventional. The trend is towards a de-professionalisation of staff, whose freedom to make judgements autonomously is curtailed.

There is a striking reliance on an insecure workforce to do the bread-and-butter teaching. Managements don’t publicise this – it would undermine the advertising – but the best information is that staff employed on a casual basis, often part-time, now do about 50% of undergraduate teaching.

This has become a secondary labour market in its own right.

With non-academic staff, there has been a trend to outsource trades and services such as maintenance, IT and security, which used to be supplied in-house.

There has also been a trend to take support staff away from departments and faculties and centralise them under the direct control of management.

And the students? HECS/HELP debt exceeds A$30 billion across the country, and there is private debt by full-fee-paying students on top of that. In the US, on which our universities are increasingly modelled, total student debt is US$1.08 trillion.

What they have gone for is increasing class sizes and more routinised courses. Students too have been increasingly shut out of university decision-making, except through their dollars as customers.

There is no mystery about how this situation arose.

The Dawkins reforms of the late 1980s expanded the university system, but did it on the cheap, following a market-style user-pays logic.

Fees have risen massively since then, while the proportion of university budgets coming direct from government collapsed from about 90% to under 45%.

Universities have been profoundly re-defined in neoliberal terms, from being sections of a unified public service to being competing firms in a market.

Universities are not collapsing. Staff commitment continues to make them work, despite worsened conditions. But a crisis of sustainability is building up, as we continue to drift towards a privatised system under the neoliberal cover story that there-is-no-alternative.

What’s the alternative?

University of Berlin: a classic role model?

The history of universities around the world is rich with alternatives, large and small.

Let’s start with the University of Berlin, the model for the modern research university. It came from a German Enlightenment concept of the Bildungsstaat, the educational state, in which supporting cultural and intellectual development was a public responsibility.

Not relevant today? It remains a strong tradition. A year ago, the last of the German Länder abolished university tuition fees. The most successful economy in Europe now has a fee-free national university system.

In the “Flying University” tradition in Poland, intellectuals set up clandestine study programs to keep alive the knowledge not wanted by the authorities – under the Tsars and under the Communists.

In the developing world, universities have been centres of reform and social change. Among them are mega-universities like the amazing National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Australia has its own tradition of experiment and invention.

The Australian National University in its early days was an adventure in the integration of knowledge in new forms.

Newcastle medical school pursued a remarkable rethinking of medical education, to make it socially responsive.

The small experimental Free Universities of the 1960s ran student-directed courses.

Many mainstream departments and programs have supported student and staff planning, interactive pedagogies, autonomous research groups and more.

Agenda for change

Australia needs fresh thinking on four basic issues.

Knowledge itself

We have the tools to re-think curriculum and research agendas around the knowledge a more democratic society needs, rather than what a corporate economy needs.


Australia can afford free higher education and wide-ranging, adventurous research. That requires a public system. It isn’t credible, and won’t be funded, if it mimics corporate profit-making. A public university must be open in its working, socially inclusive and modest in demeanour.

Universities as workplaces

Knowledge is now produced by large workforces; universities should be decent places to work, for all the groups who work here. Universities can be far more democratic than they are; means of shared decision-making are crucial.

Public role

Universities have been places of privilege; only as places of public service will they flourish. A key public service is independent critical thought. Another is educating professionals, which has to be re-thought as neoliberalism undermines old models of professionalism.

Those are directions of change, not a ready-made model.

In making a start, it’s important to know that the grey corporate orthodoxy of fees, competition and control was never, and is not now, the only possibility for higher education.

Raewyn Connell will be discussing the issues raised in this article at the Challenging the Privatised University conference on November 23, 2015.

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