What sort of higher education system does Australia need?

I watched Leigh Sales of the 7.30 Report interviewing Christopher Pyne recently, and wondered which one of the two I responded to least enthusiastically. The Minister won a close contest.

He seems besotted with the idea that Australian Universities need to be more competitive. With whom? They are quite competitive enough with one another, I think. This is part of what he said about it in an address to the National Press Club in August, setting out the Government’s higher-education legislative proposals:

Through the Government’s reforms, Australia can more than hold our own and create some of the best universities in the world and the best higher education system in the world. The reforms will create a system that increases our nation’s international standing. The reforms will create a system that will provide Australians with the skills and knowledge for the jobs of the future… We live in a time of inevitable and constant change. The international economy is evolving… we are preparing graduates for jobs that have not even been defined today… Global competition for higher education is intensifying, there are world-class universities emerging on our door step in Asia.

We must equip Australia’s higher education institutions to meet the demands of the 21st century and we have an historic opportunity to do this now. The choice is stark: either we spread access to higher education to more Australians and keep our country competitive with others in our region, or
we support a higher education system that is unsustainable, that will decline into mediocrity, and eventually be left behind.

Inasmuch as there any sense in this clamour, it is old stuff. As a vice-chancellor I was talking twenty years ago about preparing people for jobs that didn’t yet exist, and I was not alone. I almost despise the ‘rankings’ of universities that are published regularly, because they focus on what can be measured, not on what is important. But there is no doubt that Australian universities feature in the top 100 in all of them, let alone in the top 200 and the top 500.

How many universities are out there, anyway? If you go to Answers with such a question, you’ll learn that there were more than 22,000 at January this year. The USA has about 3,500, China about 2,500. Mozambique has 24. Australia has 42. Given that Australia has less than 2 per cent of the world’s population, and that there about 200 nations, I would have thought that internationally we were doing well, insofar as you can define and measure ‘doing well’. On at least these indexes, we already have ‘some of the best universities in the world’.

I once shared a platform with an eminence who was at once the head of a corporation, the chairman of a symphony orchestra and a member of the council of an ‘old’ Australian university. He thought that Australia just needed to have one of the world’s top orchestras and one of its top universities. No prizes for guessing which ones he had in mind. He so transparently believed in what he was saying that I was nonplussed. Eventually, when the time came for me to comment, I pointed out that his own orchestra had just had an overseas tour, which had seen it acclaimed everywhere, while his university was always either the first or the second in international rankings of Australian universities.

What more did he want? And if he wanted his orchestra to be even better, would that be at the expense of the money going to other orchestras, and if so, how would that be in the interests of their audiences?  He laughingly waved my questions away, as mere rhetoric. So I argued that our universities had a multiple set of purposes, of which being internationally famous was only one, and that not at the top of the priority list. They were there to ensure that our professions were staffed by well-trained practitioners, provide everyone who could benefit from it an education at a level higher than secondary school, to accumulate and distill knowledge, to carry out research that was in Australia’s interest and add to the knowledge base of the world, and generally to help in the process of civilisation in our society, which comes in part through greater knowledge and wider education.

And I’d say all that to Mr Pyne. The point of his exercise is that universities would like more money. They  have talked about ‘crises’ since 1947, and the crises are always about insufficient funds to do what they want to do. Like every other organisation I’ve ever been in, they could do more if they had more money. The Abbott Government is not going to give them any more money — that is consistent with the general reduction in public expenditure, which is at the core of the government’s program. But it could allow them to charge more for the courses they teach, and indeed, let them charge what they like.

On the whole the vice-chancellors like this prospect. I make no comment, because I’m now too far removed from the higher education world to know what the real situation is. No doubt the Group of Eight, the older, self-styled ‘leaders’ of the system, would charge more than the rest. Is the higher-education system ‘unsustainable’, as Mr Pyne believes? No, it isn’t. Universities will always cut their cloth according to the money that is available to them. Is it threatened by a ‘decline into mediocrity’ if Mr Pyne’s bill is not passed? Not on any evidence available to me. Is this time well described, in the higher-education system, as ‘a historic opportunity’? Well, I can’t see it.

All in all, my advice to Mr Pyne is the same as that I gave to his predecessors over a decade or more. First, read all the reports that successive Ministers of Education have commissioned. Second, leave the system alone. Third, find something else to do that is more productive, in terms of the public good, than meddling with universities.


Join the discussion 11 Comments

  • whyisitso says:


    Would you agree that universities are much like the ABC, that is pervaded by a left-wing group think? You are one of the very, very few academics whom I would place right-of-centre in ideological thinking.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      I think of myself as a mixture, sympathetic to the disadvantaged but also meritocratic in temper. Much of the time I don’t have a quick response to a policy proposal. Like most people, I think of myself ideologically as being in the centre!

      Having said that, I think you can judge the temper of the universities by reading what is published in The Conversation, which is a kind of continuing muted rant from within higher education — and overwhelmingly from a left, ‘progressive’, right-thinking, ‘decent’ perspective.

  • kvd says:

    Prof Aitkin, I confess I have no knowledge of the ins and outs whatsoever – but something is wrong with a system which has lately produced a surplus of education and law graduates, surely? No matter how efficiently produced, there is a point at which the usefulness of producing even more widgets becomes questionable – and particularly when the production is largely funded from the public purse.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      kvd — only if you think that the proper equilibrium requires that all law graduates must practise law and all education graduates must teach. There is no such equilibrium, of course, and there hardly ever has been. There is either a shortage of skills or an overabundance of them (geology is a good example). Law has become a kind of better arts degree for some students.

      No, those imbalances don’t worry me, and they change in the medium term anyway, as the word gets around that there are not jobs…

    • Don Aitkin says:


      You will probably enjoy — or agree with — the essay in this post:


      It’s tough. I think he overstates it, but there is some truth in all his criticisms. I think Australia is/was better than what he describes, but I have been out of it for 13 years now, and last taught a formal undergraduate course in 1979.

      • kvd says:

        Yes, it’s an interesting read; probably a good thing that I don’t have any particular prejudice to reinforce – having clearly stated my ignorance in my first post. But I am interested in your comment above that there is ‘some truth’ to his essay.

        I was just coming at it from the ‘end product’; if you can judge a stud bull by his progeny, I don’t see that it is unfair to observe an excess of widgets, even if those widgets can be redeployed elsewhere in the economy – see for instance recent reports that our excess teachers are now heading to the U.K. I just hope they send us the geologists you mentioned 🙂

  • Doug Hurst says:

    I was involved in organisational reform years ago and one of our problems was determining reliable indicators of performance and improvement. As you say, Don, the tendency was often to measure what could be measured – e.g, how hard people were working – rather than what really counted – eg, effectiveness at efficiently meeting customer needs, internal and external.

    The catch phrases were that the hard stuff (e.g, hard facts like work hours) was the easy stuff and the soft stuff (like the ability of people to work well together towards agreed goals) was the hard stuff. I assume that for a university degree, some of the soft stuff, like the ability to work under pressure, might only become apparent well after graduation – even though it may have been key to the graduation. That was certainly so in the RAAF were relative success on basic training courses was a poor indicator of later performance and usefulness.

    We hear a lot today about performance measures, but my experience was that some of the most important things cannot be precisely measured, and assessments of performance relies on general indicators, which in turn rely, in part or whole, on the judgement of experienced people.

    So when it comes to education and training, I have always been happy to rely on experienced, well trained people to design and run things with minimum outside interference. That doesn’t mean things like universities should have a completely free hand to do what they want – they are spending public money, after all, but it does mean that once some basic goals have been agreed, they should be allowed to get on with doing it without micro management from outsiders.

  • margaret says:

    “Can’t measure, can’t manage” is the catch cry of corporations. Are universities corporations above all else? Effectiveness is not the same as efficiency. Effectiveness can’t be measured because it comes from a human transaction that involves a heartfelt commitment and responsibility towards other human beings.

    • margaret says:

      … and that’s something Christopher Pyne badly lacks, or has in such a narrow Adelaide born and bred parochial sense that doesn’t relate to the country he lives in.
      The word effective isn’t necessarily attached to emotion, but it is in a field like education where the public has a perception of universities as places where bright people go to get the best education they are capable of in order to fulfil their own potential and add to Australia’s ‘cleverness’.
      But it seems universities themselves have different ideas about why they exist.

  • Gus says:

    With whom should Australian universities compete? With the best of the best, of course. Why should they be any less? So, let’s have a look at international university rankings.

    There are two well known systems here. The first one is “The Academic Ranking of World Universities” by Shanghai Ranking Consultancy. This is a highly objective system that assesses universities by their academic output. They count number of publications in major international journals, e.g., Nature and Science, they count references, Nobel Prize laureates and the like. They don’t look at education, because this is harder to measure. So it’s academic deliverables only. Who cares? Prospective PhD students care, especially the ones from China. Prospective investors care too.

    The other one is Times Higher Education World University Ranking. This one looks at academic deliverables, education, plus cultural importance of universities. So it’s more thorough, but also more subjective, since “cultural importance” is a subjective matter, as is teaching. There are certain objective criteria that can be used to evaluate teaching, e.g., class size, endowment per student, after-degree employment, but much of it is subjective, based on other people’s opinions about a particular university. Who cares? Everybody does.

    So, how do Australian universities rank?

    In the most recent 2014 Shanghai ranking:

    University of Melbourne is #44
    ANU is #74
    University of Queensland is #85
    University of Western Australia is #88
    Monash University, University of New South Wales and University of Sydney are in the #101-150 bin
    University of Adelaide is in the #151-200 bin
    Macquarie University is in the #201-300 bin

    Now, let’s have a look at the Times Higher Education ranking:

    University of Melbourne is #33
    ANU is #45
    University of Sydney is #60
    University of Queensland is #65
    Monash University is #83
    University of New South Wales is #109
    University of Western Australia is #157
    University of Adelaide is #164

    What can we see from these two rankings? The cultural and educational importance of leading Australian universities is slightly higher than their academic output. Melbourne, ANU and Queensland lead in both rankings. Western Australia ranks higher on academic output, because of its School of Medicine and the Nobel Prize laureate they have there, but the school slips beyond Queensland, Monash and New South Wales when education and cultural impact are taken into account.
    On academic deliverables only Melbourne is in the top 50. On broader count, Melbourne and ANU.

    Should Australia be doing better, or is this OK given the size of the country’s population and resources?

    On the Shanghai list, the top 18 positions are all American institutions plus Cambridge (#5) and Oxford (#9). But #19 is the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. Canada’s University of Toronto is #24 and their University of British Columbia is #37. Then we have University of Copenhagen #39, Karolinska Institut (Sweden) is #47, behind Melbourne, University of Zurich (Switzerland) #56, Uppsala University (Sweden) #60, University of Geneva (Switzerland) #66, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem #70, University of Helsinki (Finland) #73. Finally, Aarhus University (Denmark) shares slot #74 with ANU.

    So, looking at this list we can state that Australia is doing OK, Melbourne matching some of the best universities in similarly sized countries, but other schools less so, with ANU behind many competitors. American and British schools (not listed here explicitly) dominate, but Switzerland has remarkably good schools for its size. Canada, Australia’s peer in the British Empire, is somewhat ahead of Australia in academic deliverables, but we are still talking about one versus two universities only.

    The Times list assigns #20 to Toronto, #25 to National University of Singapore, #32 to University of British Columbia, just ahead of #33, Melbourne, and puts Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne behind it at #34. Then, there is McGill university in Montreal at #39 and University of Hong Kong #43, Karolinska Institute #44 and ANU #45.

    Summary: Australia has 4 or 5 universities in the top 100, depending on what criteria you take into account. This is better than many countries, but behind Canada and Switzerland, and in terms of academic deliverables, also behind Denmark, but not by much. None of Australian universities climbs higher than #33 on the Times’ list and higher than #44 on the Shanghai one.

    From my experience, Australian higher education system is needlessly burdened with having to maintain countless Mickey Mouse universities that should have never been granted this title and the financial entitlements that go with it. This was done by the Hawke-Keating government and, as far as I know, never undone. All these Mickey Mouse schools should be returned to States to manage as they please, privatized if possible, converted into vocational schools (yes, Australia needs much more vocational training), or just shut down. Money saved should be used to prop up Melbourne and ANU so as to elevate both schools to the level matching the best of Canadian and Swiss.

    Australians should also consider change in the funding of whatever universities are still left with this status. Why not return them to the states? In the US all universities are either private or funded by states, with the federal government only providing funds for research and loans for students–the latter a rather questionable practice that may well be killed down the road by a future government that will take its fiscal responsibilities more seriously. This works exceptionally well, as is attested by the ranking tables the top of which is uniformly filled with American institutions.

    State ownership of universities lets states and universities compete with each other. This is healthy and results in the kind of academic and educational excellence for which American institutions are still the envy of the world. Although the best ones, like Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Princeton, Caltech and the like are all private, the state owned University of California, with its campuses at Berkeley, San Diego, LA is amongst the best in the world too, scoring #8 on the Times list and #4 on the Shanghai one.

  • […] such an event, a refusal by the Senate to repeal the carbon tax, did not occur. Issues like the deregulation of higher education funding, and the co-payment for doctor visits, are harder to justify in terms of an election mandate, and […]

Leave a Reply