Another crisis in higher education

By June 24, 2020Other

In 1947 the universities in Australia were trying to cope with the enrolments of former servicemen, and women, paid for by the Commonwealth Government under a postwar reconstruction scheme. The vice-chancellors, who rarely met, and there were only seven of them, wrote to the Government and declared there was a ‘crisis’. That word was going to be overused throughout the next seventy years. During that time the world of higher education grew and grew, from around 25,000 in 1947, to well over a million today (or before Covid-19). Each time there was a sharp increase in enrolments there was a corresponding claim that higher education was in ‘crisis’ again. 

Originally the Commonwealth Government had no funding role at all with respect to higher education. It is not mentioned in section 51, which sets out the Commonwealth’s rights in legislation. In 1946, however, the electorate agreed to a Constitutional change allowing the Commonwealth to make grants to students. On that change has rested all the Commonwealth’s subsequent intervention in higher education. It is now the principal funder of that sector of education, followed by the contribution of international students. Covid-19 and our lockdown has crippled the contribution of foreign students, and one current estimate of the funding downfall, just from local students alone, is $300 million. Heaven alone knows how long it will be before the cash cows are once again giving abundant milk. It will be a few years, I think.

So higher education is in crisis again. The Commonwealth is not unduly sympathetic, and the widespread feeling (within government) is that the universities should have put a lot of that foreign money into the bank. If they did, they aren’t telling anyone. The Commonwealth, reasonably enough, feels that it can decide what universities are for, and the current view, expressed by Minister Tehan, is that it should be encouraging this sort of student  rather than that sort of student. So graduates who might be ‘useful’ in the emerging post-pandemic meltdown, like nurses and STEM (science, technology and mathematics) are to be preferred over most arts and humanities and law students, whose HECS liabilities are to rise significantly. HECS is a deferred loan from the Government, allowing students to enter university without course fees, but with a contingent liability once their earnings reach a certain level. It has been in existence for some thirty years now, and has been copied abroad. One of its designers, Professor Bruce Chapman, was honoured in the recent Australia Day gongs for his contribution.

Needless to say, these changes have caused horror in the system. Does the Minister not understand what universities are for? declared two contributors to The Conversation, both of them from the arts and social sciences camp. Why yes, he does, but it is not the contributors’ view, which goes like this:

Universities exist to expand knowledge and create a civil society. They allow us to understand, challenge, collaborate, inquire, discover, create, design, confront and imagine. 

The implications of the government’s announcement are about more than incentivising the career trajectories of students. They are a direct assault on the premise of universities.

What follows is a lengthy essay on the history of the university. Since most members of the House of Representatives have been to university (I think!) they have heard this sort of talk many times already, from their first matriculation and every graduation day, and no doubt from a few of their teachers. When I was an undergraduate that was my experience too. You get used to it. I remember one such event when the distinguished speaker told us how lucky we were and how he wished he had been to university too. We looked at his Bentley and thought how lucky he was. No such vehicle looked possible to us, high school teachers to be.

Indeed, the whole culture of universities has changed many times since my arrival in 1954. We had come from high schools where we were most likely to be called by our surnames, and then gruffly. Now we were addressed as ‘Mr’ or ‘Miss’. We lost contact with where we had been, and were cloistered in a residential university where everything that was important happened. We wore gowns, and were taught in small groups. ‘Where is Mr So-and-so?’ a lecturer would ask, and make a note in a list. Where the lecturer was known to be foreign (say Mathematics) the class roll might include such well-known personalities as Mr Edward Kelly and Mr William Nudgel (named after the small village in northern NSW called Billinudgel). Eventually the lecturer would get tired of their continual absence from his classes and complain to the long-suffering Registrar, who would explain gently that the students had pulled his leg.

Within a very few years we were joined by external students, funded separately and assisted differently, again funded by the Commonwealth. We already had a few evening students, and they didn’t bother with gowns. Before I had become a graduate student myself, such creatures were filling up the faculties, and given opportunities to do casual teaching. For about two decades the enrolments in higher education doubled every seven years. The Commonwealth, desperately seeking a way out of the continuous and increasing funding of an expanding elite, so to speak, brought in a new class of institution, called the colleges of advanced education. They were not funded for research or for honours programs, and their senior people were not called professors.

That lasted until 1987,when its time was well and truly up; colleges disappeared, either absorbed into existing universities or standing on their own. That change was perhaps the greatest crisis higher education had known. A couple of years later the Commonwealth ended its former Colombo Plan sponsorship of foreign students, and allowed universities to enrol foreign students for cash. That possibility the universities all grabbed with glee. Its effects have been somewhat virtuous and somewhat pernicious as well, as the pandemic lockdown has shown.

Its ramifications are still written about. What has occurred in the past thirty years is a sort of shaking down. The ‘good and great’, meaning the universities established by 1947, are still the ’leaders’, though whom they are supposed to lead has always been a mystery to me.  They do most of the research in the system, and offer the highest salaries. One of their vice-chancellors has a salary in excess of a million dollars. The second tier, a mixture of younger universities and well-established former colleges of advanced education, has found a niche that works, and its institutions are building their reputations. The third group, the remainder, is a set of universities that are struggling, and doing the best they can.

Meanwhile the students no longer wear gowns, a practice that had pretty well gone by the 1960s. Today most of them have jobs, and have to find money to live. In my old terms, they should be called part-time students, but many of them are carrying a full-time load. Only a few have the time, the interest or the energy to be involved in ’student activities’, but then most of my fellow students in the1950s were more interested in informal activities like cards, billiards, drinking, and hunting after love, than the organised ones.

What we have now is yet another ‘crisis’, and like all the others, this one will sort itself out in time. It may even be followed by yet another ‘review’. The absence of so many foreign students might allow universities to look hard at the extent to which those students have enough English to learn properly while they are here, and whether grades have been lowered to ensure that the students are satisfied with the outcome. I wouldn’t bet on it.

ENDNOTE: The story of higher education in Australia is a vast and absorbing one, and my little essay skims the surface only. Dozens of books have been written about the last thirty years alone. My points here are that ‘crises’ occur every few years, as the system changes, while people within higher education passionately care about the changes. And so much of higher education is funded by the taxpayers, which they forget.

Join the discussion 26 Comments

  • BB says:

    I have read much about disapproval of the humanities. It is from there we have things like gender studies and various other dubious subjects. I remember seeing a lecture about students roles in controlling the information they receive via deplatforming and various other methods. During this it became apparent that a number of the students were of a particular class on activism. The principal teacher of the subject was also present. The government’s recent adjustment of fees I thought would indicate disapproval of such things by raising the fees greatly.

    I have some disquiet because the way the fees are set up a student can enrolled in a humanities course and never actually pay the fee. The reason being they never become employed. This is also been mentioned by the universities. Don do you think the adjustment in fees will not have their intended effect?

    • John Stankevicius says:

      The best place of learning were the Institutes of Technology where engineering and computer programming were the main disciplines. Below them were surveying, metalurgy and accountancy. Then they branched into Physio, Podiarty and other health science jobs. The humanities, including law, journalism and teaching have been bastadised to such a degree that the graduates are not much chop. The humanities do not have much practical application to the real world. The sciences and engineering should be encouraged. University is about getting a hard job where you are able to design something in its totality and not just a part of it eg electricians cannot design or implement a electricity grid.

  • Boambee John says:

    “Universities exist to expand knowledge and create a civil society. They allow us to understand, challenge, collaborate, inquire, discover, create, design, confront and imagine.”

    Commendable ambitions.

    But in an era when not just humanities students, but also their lecturers, are unable psychologically to accept that the past should be judged by the standards of the time, and should not be erased simply because some snowflakes cannot bear to have their opinions challenged, it is debatable how such ambitions can be achieved, or even if they can be achieved at all.

    When the historical canon can be denigrated as the work of “old, dead, white men”, and rejected solely for that ageist, racist, sexist, reason, it is hard to sympathise with those involved. When law graduates seem to believe that there should be separate laws for individuals, depending upon their age, sex, ethnicity, religion or lack thereof, then it is hard to have sympathy.

    When too many foreign students are not fluent enough in written or spoken English to comprehend the material before them, then universities have become little more than a means of obtaining permanent residency.

    I could go on, but I hope the message is clear. Universities must return to their earlier ambitions, or become trade schools and enablers of immigration rorts.

    In their present state, trade schools would be more useful.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    If the universities are really suffering, which I doubt, they may want to consider whether it is absolutely necessary to pay their top executives five to ten times the salary of the average labourer in the vineyard, or waste taxpayer dollars funding the ‘shop window’ of The Conversation.

  • dlb says:

    “The absence of so many foreign students might allow universities to look hard at the extent to which those students have enough English to learn properly while they are here, and whether grades have been lowered to ensure that the students are satisfied with the outcome. I wouldn’t bet on it.”

    I would bet that as soon as they can, the universities will be herding those cash cows on to planes back to Australia.

    re Billinudgel, I remember being told this was the aboriginal name for the king parrot. If you ever listen to a king parrot quietly chattering, the name is obviously onomatopoeic. So much for the lefties claim that we only name places after colonial big nobs.

    • spangled drongo says:

      dlb, my kingies are currently saying, “frossit? frossit? issit? wassit?

      But maybe they only go to Billinudgel in the summer.

  • Chris Warren says:

    This may be a clue as to what has gone wrong;

    ‘One of their vice-chancellors has a salary in excess of a million dollars. ‘

    I cannot see how the cost of providing courses matches the associated staff, admin and equipment costs – particularly for textbook courses – law, economics, humanities, maths etc

    How can each student (of hundreds) cost between 13,000 and 15,000 in economics for example (3-4 lectures plus 1 tute for 30 weeks) ? But this is the reality…

    presumably it is the fact that universities have a high degree of monopoly-power, that allows them to (in cahoots with government) hike fees for their own benefit.

    • Boambee John says:


      How is vice chancellors’ remuneration set? The Remuneration Tribunal? Or by the university senate?

      Perhaps some transparency would help.

      • Bryan Roberts says:

        It is worth noting that there are twelve Australian universities (not all in the GO8) that pay their VCs more than a million dollars.

        • Boambee John says:


          I wonder how much those payments are linked to success in attracting full fee paying foreign students?

          Some universities also seem to be offering accommodation services, presumably at a market price. I did see a while ago that La Trobe could be in major financial trouble, after putting some $75 million into new student accommodation last year in the expectation of large numbers of foreign students continuing to arrive.

  • Peter E says:

    I am grateful that my time was long before the Left got hold of the humanities, although towards the end some idiots were rushing around waving Mao’s little red book. Since then there has been appalling corruption of learning and it is hard to know how to change that. Putting up the price of the humanities seems a very blunt instrument but those who have been teaching these subjects have only themselves to blame.

  • Neville says:

    Here’s another way to understand the last hundred years of so called higher education and why so many in Western Media and Universities now hate our institutions and work tirelessly to embrace so called “critical theory” instead of “critical thinking”. Yet thankfully ASIO and the AFP are now probing further into the ALP’s links to China and Moselmane’s home was raided yesterday and not before time. This was always about much more than senator Sam Dastyari.

    “Apocalyptic Science: How The West Is Destroying Itself”

    Date: 26/06/20
    Bruce Pardy, Financial Post

    “The most serious threat to the West is not China or Russia but its visceral disgust with itself. A growing proportion of people — in universities, the media, politics and corporate structures — now reject the premises upon which their own thriving societies are built”.
    Critical Theory drives government policies and shape public attitudes: Capitalism is oppressive. Private property rights cause environmental destruction. Prosperity causes climate change.Peter J. Thompson/National Post files

    If you live in a Western nation like Canada in the 21st century, you have more freedom, prosperity and peace than most of the rest of the world at most other times in history. Yet these countries have never been at greater risk. The threat is not pandemics, climate change or war but something more insidious.

    Modern Western civilization grew out of the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. The ascendancy of reason in human affairs produced the scientific method and later the Industrial Revolution. Add in the rule of law, individual liberty, private property and capitalism, and you have the basic recipe that has raised most of humanity out of poverty over two centuries.

    New academic doctrines are moving the world, or at least the West, from this triumph to decline. They dismiss science — real science — in favour of political agendas, in which theory trumps facts.

    Few people are familiar with Critical Theory and its related doctrines, yet these ideas today drive government policies and shape public attitudes. Capitalism is oppressive. Private property rights cause environmental destruction. Prosperity causes climate change.

    The most serious threat to the West is not China or Russia but its visceral disgust with itself. A growing proportion of people — in universities, the media, politics and corporate structures — now reject the premises upon which their own thriving societies are built.

    Critical Theory opposes everything that makes the West work. Unlike traditional academic inquiry, which seeks to explain and understand with logic, analysis and the scientific method, these doctrines are less theories than programs. Their purpose is to condemn cultural norms, tear down existing orders and transform society.

    It all starts with Marx. Between the two world wars, scholars at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt began to investigate why Marxism was failing to catch on in the West. They broadened Marx’s tight focus on economic oppression of the working class and developed the doctrine known as Critical Theory, which is premised on the ideas that power and oppression define relationships throughout society, that knowledge is socially contingent, and that unjust Western institutions should be collapsed and reconstituted. As Marx wrote, “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” Critical Theory should not be confused with critical thinking. To think critically is to reason. Critical Theory’s imperatives are ideological assertions not based on scientific data or deduction.

    In his seminal 1937 essay, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” Max Horkheimer, sometimes referred to as the father of critical theory, distinguished between the scientific or empirical tradition of enquiry and a critical approach that integrates numerous disciplines and incorporates historical and social influences in the enterprise of enquiry. Unlike the scientific method, which accepts observation as evidence and reproducibility as confirmation of truth, in Critical Theory, knowledge is contingent upon its origins and the social environment from which it comes. While Critical Theory shares Marx’s condemnation of capitalism and the power imbalances that define economic relationships, it rejects Marx’s essential empiricism in favour of melding science, philosophy, sociology and history into a single interdisciplinary enquiry.

    Critical Theory is not a singular school of thought but a scholarly umbrella that consists of multiple approaches and variations that defy easy encapsulation. Like Critical Theory, they are activist and political. They lead with their conclusions. Embedded within them is the central tenet of postmodernism, a philosophical movement of the mid- to late 20th century. Postmodernism challenges the premises of Enlightenment reason, particularly the claim that observation and rationality can identify objective truth, whether moral or scientific.

    The argument has merit: neither morality nor the scientific premise that what we perceive is real are capable of proof. Postmodernism’s Achilles heel is not its central thesis but its failure to follow it. If there is no truth, then no universal conclusions can be reached, and therefore all questions must be left to individuals.

    Postmodernism embraces Critical Theory and vice versa. Progressives are apt to insist that truth is relative and subjective when they encounter facts that they do not like, but otherwise eagerly enforce “truths” that they prefer. There is no truth. […]

    Indoctrination works. Hear something often enough from people in authority and you begin to believe it. In the decades following its birth at the Frankfurt School, Critical Theory and its variations made an inexorable march through universities, influencing such disparate disciplines as sociology, literary criticism and linguistics, infiltrating professional schools like teachers’ colleges and law schools, and dominating “grievance studies” such as women’s studies, gender studies and media studies.

    The final conquest is now in progress inside science, technology, engineering and medical faculties. Generations of graduates, taught to believe in Critical Theory rather than how to think critically about it, now populate governments, corporate boards, human resource departments, courts, media outlets, teachers’ unions, school boards and classrooms. Critical Theory is embedded in elementary school curricula. Children carry the guilt and resentment of living in a society that they are taught is fundamentally unjust. No coup is more effective than one committed by a people against itself”.

  • Neville says:

    Here’s a quick summary so far about Moselmane and Labor’s fascination with China. But why hasn’t this dangerous fool been booted out of the ALP?

  • spangled drongo says:

    If only those deluded higher educated would check the facts and learn the difference between knowledge and belief.

    Like Zion:

  • Don Andersen says:

    I did not attend university.
    Where’s my Bentley?

  • Boambee John says:


    Not directly connected with the subject of this thread (or perhaps it is, given the prostitution of science in universities recently), but Michael Schellenberger has renounced climate alarmism in a new book and an article in Forbes.

    Two extracts from Forbes.

    “Until last year, I mostly avoided speaking out against the climate scare. Partly that’s because I was embarrassed. After all, I am as guilty of alarmism as any other environmentalist. For years, I referred to climate change as an “existential” threat to human civilization, and called it a “crisis.”

    But mostly I was scared. I remained quiet about the climate disinformation campaign because I was afraid of losing friends and funding. The few times I summoned the courage to defend climate science from those who misrepresent it I suffered harsh consequences. And so I mostly stood by and did next to nothing as my fellow environmentalists terrified the public.”

    “Why were we all so misled?

    In the final three chapters of Apocalypse Never I expose the financial, political, and ideological motivations. Environmental groups have accepted hundreds of millions of dollars from fossil fuel interests. Groups motivated by anti-humanist beliefs forced the World Bank to stop trying to end poverty and instead make poverty “sustainable.” And status anxiety, depression, and hostility to modern civilization are behind much of the alarmism

    Once you realize just how badly misinformed we have been, often by people with plainly unsavory or unhealthy motivations, it is hard not to feel duped.

    Will Apocalypse Never make any difference? There are certainly reasons to doubt it.

    The news media have been making apocalyptic pronouncements about climate change since the late 1980s, and do not seem disposed to stop.

    The ideology behind environmental alarmsim — Malthusianism — has been repeatedly debunked for 200 years and yet is more powerful than ever.

    But there are also reasons to believe that environmental alarmism will, if not come to an end, have diminishing cultural power.”

    It might be worth a separate thread, to complement the Moore/Gibbs thread. Certainly the Green Wall seems to be crumbling.

    • Neville says:

      Sorry BJ you beat me by 10 minutes and this does belong here, because the so called mitigation of so called CAGW is the greatest fraud and con trick over the last 10,000 years.

  • Neville says:

    Now even Shellenberger apologises for some of his BS over the last 30 years.
    I have some respect for him,but he should have read Lomborg’s books decades ago and he could have worked that much earlier to develop better Nuclear energy and fought hard against the idiocy of S&W.
    But he has had the guts to look at the data and eventually admit he was wrong. And one of the leaders of Ext reb has also admitted she was wrong and is now a campaigner for Nuclear energy.
    So how long before some of the Uni leaders and so called scientists also admit they were wrong? But I’ll believe it when I see it.

  • Boambee John says:

    Link to the article on Schellenberger’s website.

    The whole Forbes article is there.

    • Neville says:

      Thanks for that BJ and I’ve linked to Shellenberger a number of times over the last few months.
      BTW Zion Lights was the Ext reb expert (?????) who changed her mind and now works for Shellenberger’s group.
      The puzzle is why it takes decades to wake up and apparently this revelation can then occur rather quickly.
      Lomborg couldn’t believe it at first but checked the data and realised very quickly that their so called mitigation would be a disaster.
      Shellenberger apparently ignored the data for decades and didn’t bother to check it out. Zion Lights changed her mind very quickly when she was told to check the data for herself. Like poor Greta she had been frightened since childhood by the left wing loonies and only woke up after she looked up the data for herself at the age of 36 and herself the mother of two kids.
      So how much longer do we have to wait for the rest of these donkeys to look up the data for themselves and admit they were wrong?
      And of course I’m referring above to their so called mitigation of their so called CAGW con and fraud trick.

  • Neville says:

    Now another IPCC expert speaks out about the latest observations about the climate.
    Perhaps we’ll soon see the first major cracks in the IPCC dam wall? And not before time, just look up the data for yourselves.

  • Neville says:

    Here’s a quick summary of Lomborg’s new book “False Alarm”.
    The world has wasted trillions of $ for zero change to the climate and hurt the poorest countries the most and we’ve stuffed up electricity grids etc in the wealthiest countries. IOW all pain for ZERO gain.
    When will this lunacy stop and why don’t more so called scientists call out this fraudulent nonsense ASAP?

  • Neville says:

    Anthony Watts interviews Willis Eschenbach about computer modeling of the climate and CV-19.
    It seems that the CV-19 models should be easy compared to climate models trying to understand our climate a decade or 100+ years into the future.
    But Ferguson’s CV-19 model was a disaster and we should be even more cautious about climate modeling.
    IOW GIGO could quickly become GI and a truck load of GO by 2100+.
    The only sane approach is to invest in solid base-load energy now and into the future + more R&D + ongoing adaptation( forever) as a matter of course. Never forget that humans are very, very good at adaptation. Just ponder the journey from the caves to the modern world in the last 11,000 years.

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