The Future of Australian Universities Remains a Great Unknown

The university system has been a great pinnacle of the international educational landscape for 1000 years. In that time, it has weathered some of the most fundamental changes to not only the culture of the institution, but humanity itself: the invention of the printing press, the industrial revolution, the technical revolution, world wars, and the social reformation of many long-held norms.

It has survived them all, but can it survive the unprecedented change we now face, one that will impact the very nature of what it is to exist in this world that we have created?

The primary and secondary schooling systems are already in the firing line, but universities play a very different role. While the former are designed to provide students what to think in order to provide them with basic life skills and knowledge, universities teach students how to think. They are the domain of experimentation, of critical thinking, of excellence.

At least they used to be.

Earlier this year, Chancellor Adrienne Clarke, Vice-Chancellor John Dewar, and Emeritus Professor Robert Manne of Melbourne’s La Trobe University met to discuss this very subject in a presentation entitled The Future of Australian Universities. Dewar steered the context of the Q&A session via a keynote based on his own vision of the institution’s prospects.

Early in his speech, Dewar quotes an op-ed piece by an anonymous author published in the 2015 Higher Educational Supplement, and later The Australian, entitled Bean Counters Now in Charge of Our Universities:

“…what is happening at Australian universities these days is even more transactional, technocratic, institutionalised, corporate-mindset, not to say Aspergers, than ever.”

That is a sentiment shared both within the system, and without, inspired primarily by the government’s fermenting influence over the nation’s universities.

In 1966, 1 in 140 Australians attended university. In 2013, the number was 1 in 25. As demand grew, so did the universities, and in so doing made the transition from what professor and author Ronald Barnett calls a research system (a system of-itself) to an entrepreneurial system (for-itself). An entrepreneurial university is defined by performance, by impact. The government became involved to help grow this impact for economic reasons. The universities became investments, and the only profit that mattered was denoted with a dollar sign.

Dewar believes the issues are more “ambiguous” than this, and while this is certainly true, his optimistic approach doesn’t ring true. His skewing of reports of wide-scale disapproval from those employed by Australian universities, for instance, feels like Vice-Chancellory duty over a certainty that there is no real cause for concern.

He also believes universities have reached the limits of government support, and believes their only option is to slow the growth process or increase student fees. He even talks of fee deregulation, citing a proposal by former Education Minister Christopher Pyne. Dewar says doing so will ensure will help pave the path to Barnett’s ‘Ecological University’ – a university designed to provide for others that will provide a balance between scale and price, between teaching and research.

However, he barely touches on the issue of what universities will be teaching to meet the requirements of the future workforce, or how the 3-4 year degree might be altered to support a transition to this workforce.

It all seems a bit murky, and the suggestion that raising fees will help maintain universities as institutes of enquiry, not just results, seems rather narrow-sighted and hopelessly Australian when you consider the current challenges of paying the costs of living in this country. While Dewar might have found a solution for how universities can stay afloat, he does nothing to address the validity of the university system a decade from now, when the purpose of attending university is likely to have shifted dramatically. That should be deeply concerning.

You can view the full session in the video below, thanks to The Monthly.

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