Whose universities are they, anyway?

The publication of three books about the recent past and possible future of higher education, not to mention articles in journals and on the Internet, suggest that all is not well in academe. While all has never, at least since the end of the second world war, been well in academe (the AVCC first used the word ‘crisis’ in 1947), it may be true that the level of tension within higher education today is notably high. The three books are Glyn Davis’s The Australian Idea of a University, Stuart Macintyre’s No End of a Lesson, and my own Critical Mass. How the Commonwealth got into funding research in universities. All were published at the end of 2017.

‘The university’ is not a term with a single or simple meaning, and is almost undefinable. Just about all who have written about it have at least attended it as a student, and most have also served as academic staff. Their perspective is understandably coloured by their experiences. Their sense of what a university should be probably reflects their happiest experiences. What came afterwards was never as a good. Most of those who now have to deal with universities from outside the cloisters also attended the institutions as students, but their experiences were usually not as enjoyable, since academics on the whole favour and nurture those students who enrol in honours or distinction programs, whom staff see as future academics.

Moreover, the scale of higher education has changed greatly, even in my own time. There were six universities and 13,000 students in 1939, and when I enrolled at the University of New England in 1954, there were perhaps twice as many students, plus a seventh university, the ANU. In 2017 there were 43 accredited universities, plus a small private university and two off-shoots of foreign universities. The research funds provided to the sector through the ARC and the NHMRC alone were nudging $2 billion. More than a million students were supported by more than 100,000 staff of all kinds. The large number of overseas students provided the economy with fees and living expenses whose sum made higher education a major player in Australia’s foreign earnings. In 1954 only two per cent of 18-year-olds attended an institution of higher education; today it is the intended destination for two thirds of all school-leavers. When I went to UNE I almost disappeared from my former social scene: I was ‘at uni’, gone from sight into a world that only students knew. I never returned to the old scene. Today universities are part of the mainstream of Australian society, and students are hard at work not only in higher education, but in restaurants, bars, night clubs and elsewhere. They need the income.

Several factors caused the continuing postwar growth. One was wealth. Australia kept growing in wealth and some of that wealth, channeled through government, built universities and later colleges, and some of the rest allowed more discretionary income to more families. Parents wanted more education for their children, girls no less than boys. Human knowledge (basically, what academics published in journals) multiplied and multiplied, and that happened professions began to demand that their entrants know more, through having obtained a university degree. Relative status claims, Australia’s main social cleavage, ensured that one profession after another lobbied to have their role in society authenticated by a proper degree.

The universities that started in colonial days were poor, and lived off government grants, student fees and philanthropy. There was not much of the latter, save in Perth. Today’s universities find their biggest sources of income through Commonwealth grants, overseas student fees, and research money. Though they still occupy the same sites as was the case when they began life (along with a great deal more real estate), the reality of university life is quite different, and it is the differences that cause the criticism and the tensions. Universities are never the same, no matter what their appearance suggests.

It is not clear who owns universities, or who is really accountable for them. After President Eisenhower retired from the army in 1948 he became the President of Columbia University. The story goes that he invited the senior staff to a meeting at which he said how pleased he was to meet the university’s employees. There was a stunned silence, at the end of which the senior dean replied, ‘Mr President, we are the University!’ The notion that academic staff are the real core/owners/essence of the university is widely held by academic staff, especially in the older established universities. It is true that both Oxford and Cambridge were founded by scholars, who met together, attracted students, and sought bequests to enable buildings and scholarships. And they were successful, too. But neither university was given annual grants by the monarchs of the time, and no monarch established a review to see whether they were doing what they should have been doing, whatever that was. Oxford and Cambridge are not a sensible model for Australia, which in fact followed in the mid 19th century the Scottish model of the university.

These days students have a keen sense that they are the real university, on the ground that they pay fees, and that without them and their fees there would be no need of the academic staff, or indeed of the university as a place. I guess most vice-chancellors have had the experience of a student’s coming to see them with a complaint about the quality of teaching, or an examination outcome, in a particular course or unit. Twenty years ago my example pointed out that he had paid $3,000, or whatever the amount was, and thought the quality of what he found was execrable. There were available processes he could have used (he had failed a unit or two) rather than come to me, but I explained to him that the University’s current value, all up, was then about $200 million, and its annual budget was a tad less. His $3,000 was not, all things considered, a straw that might break a camel’s back. Then we got down to what could be done in his particular case. Though that one was solved pretty easily, there is little doubt that lots of our students, and their parents, think that they have been short-changed. In particular, many object to the importance that ‘research’ has for staff, over ‘teaching’, the latter being what they see as the core purpose of the institution.

The Commonwealth, the real provider, knows that universities are important, and that research is important, but has no idea, really, how to make anything better. From its perspective higher education is simply tertiary education, the next stage after school. The Treasury and Finance are probably united in the view that too much money goes into university coffers and is badly used, but unless the Government wants to really regulate the sector, what we have will remain a stand-off, productive of criticism, tension, laments for past golden ages, and an instrumental perspective from almost everyone. The Dawkins changes in the late 1980 are unlikely to be repeated: there is no unanimity about what changes are needed, and no forthright and audacious Minister who could bring the changes off.

It is well to remember, when talking about the ‘real’ university, that the vast majority of students see the university as a pathway to the job they want after graduation. They did seventy years ago, too. It is sixteen years since I left my last university, and all I know about ‘university life’ today is anecdotal. The academics who rail against the dumbing down of intellectual life there (and one did so to me the other day) seem to have come almost entirely from the arts and science faculties. The professional schools, where most students go, have been preparing students for a particular kind of work after graduation in much the same way for well more than a hundred years. If their graduates become intellectually interested that is a bonus, but it is not what their faculties set out to achieve, for the most part. If universities are now dominated by the ‘left’, again that would seem to me most likely in the faculties of arts and their counterparts, not in the professional schools.

To repeat, universities are strange, diverse and awkward public institutions. I liked all those I had anything to do with, but none of them was perfect, or could ever have been perfect.


[An earlier version of this essay was published some time ago in John Menadue’s Pearl and Irritations website.]







Join the discussion 25 Comments

  • Art says:

    ‘Mr President, we are the University!’ is a stark reminder of what happened to CSIRO. Up until 1988, when the managerialism virus was first injected into CSIRO by McKinsey, the senior scientists believed that they were CSIRO, working for Australia under the umbrella of an organisation which was quite decentralised. With the mergers of divisions into larger groupings and the concomitant morphing of a subservient administrative class into a senior management caste, that changed gradually through the 90’s and the death knell was sounded around shortly after 2000 by Catherine Livingstone, the chairperson at the time. Her comment in a video presentation was something to the effect of: Scientists must be made to realise that they no longer work for Australia, they work for CSIRO.

    In my view, the fact that someone who started life as an accountant came to be chair of a once great organisation itself says a lot about the intellectual decline of CSIRO. One hopes that any penalties inflicted on the Commonwealth Bank will go to the very top but obviously that will not happen.

  • spangled drongo says:

    One of my bones of contention with University enviro-science and CSIRO is their mindless embracing of the Dingo as a native animal and the lies they tell to justify their claims whereas 50-60 years ago it was generally a pest and treated that way.

    The Dingo is the Pariah-dog of Asia that was brought here by Asian fishermen ~ 3,000 years ago, didn’t even reach the greater part of this continent until less than a century ago and prevents us from eradicating feral pigs, foxes, dogs and cats, [those ferals most responsible for our native extinctions] yet it is revered by these academics.

    When I ask if any one of them has ever done a thesis comparing the biodiversity of Tasmania [where it never got and which is arguably the most bio diverse part of the country] with Fraser Island [where it is worshipped and where virtually no ground dwelling natives survive] they say not but start making up stories about how essential it was to naturalise it.

    What does it remind you of?

  • margaret says:

    Interesting essay Don.

  • spangled drongo says:

    It is more than just the competition for funding that is causing the problem. When the highest levels of research and study cannot produce narrowing conclusions with experts in general agreement but instead continually produce outcomes based on one’s “side” in politics more than science, it’s easy to see the cold war is on in earnest .

    There are endless examples:



    Where will this cold war end?

    Will they have to resort to red buildings and blue buildings?

  • BoyfromTottenham says:

    Thanks, Don. My thoughts are that Australian universities have become totally business (and therefore ‘profit’) focused, largely due I think to two factors – vast numbers of high fee-paying overseas students, and real estate development. This has caused a major shift in their business model from that of a traditional ‘institute of higher learning’ to that of a run of the mill profit-seeking commercial enterprise, hence the huge salaries of VCs and senior management. I am tempted to wonder what would happen if say the supply of foreign students dried up – would they revert to the old model (unlikely), or simply develop new ‘products’ to sell in the ‘education’ marketplace?

    • dlb says:

      I wish the foreign student industry would dry up.
      In many cases a student visa is just a back door for permanent residency. http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/call-for-migration-rort-crackdown-as-data-reveals-foreign-workers-snare-net-job-growth-20140807-3d9ma.html

      In addition, student visas allow them to join the workforce, thus competing for casual jobs with Australian born residents.
      And if some actually turn up at university it is a common complaint that the universities relax their standards, allowing them to scrape through with a degree. Also many Australian students complain that their grasp of English is poor, so they end up carrying the foreign students through the group assignments, so beloved of lecturers.

      I would be curious to know how many on foreign students on such visas actually complete their course and return to their country to help their country with their new found skills?

    • Brian Austen says:

      Precisely; spot on.
      Why are Universities involved in football fields, urban relocations and disruptions. Why does the Federal government fund them in these activities.

      My hobby is genealogy. The University of Tasmania offers mickey mouse courses that have very little academic metric.

      Meanwhile TAFE colleges, that should be offering such courses are becoming moribund.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    The modern university.

    “Prep Week and O-Fest have come and gone, Connect Week is drawing to a close, Culture Week is next, and Success Week will follow. Highlights for some have included an extremely busy St Lucia Market Day, a Gatton Market Day so hot that the stalls were moved from outdoors into the dining hall, the first Great Court Party in more than 20 years, and a very popular pool party at Gatton”

  • chrisl says:

    Universities are all about credentialism. Turn a perfectly good trade (eg nursing or journalism) into a degree course and Bingo instant status No guarantee of a job and more debt that you will ever be eligible to repay

  • chrisl says:

    One of my daughters , with a degree and a diploma, was 29 before she earned enough to legally be compelled to pay off her HECS debt. And never was she asked what she studied or had to use any of the “knowledge” she gained

  • PeterD says:

    This column raises some interesting ideas for me and here are a couple of them.

    I was never a manager or a senior leader in the two universities where I worked, so the question that is of most interests to me is not “Who owns universities?” but ‘What is the quality of research, learning and teaching that occurs in universities?”

    As you state, Don, “the scale of higher education has changed greatly” so the critical drivers of change in universities since I commenced study at USyd in 1965 are of personal interest but may not be what strikes others.

    In ‘Idea of a university’, Newman identified two signifiant themes: one philosophical – Knowledge as ‘an end itself’; the other he termed mechanical – “I say it is that of training good members of society. Its art is the art of social life, and its end is fitness for the world.’

    In my view, this philosophical concept of education, the idea of critical thinking, critical theory, critiquing the underlying values of institutions, being iconoclastic, sceptical etc has waned somewhat over the decades. The prevailing thinking for many now is “You deny your inner voice to be in accord with the voices of the institution”. We want an acquiescent workforce not a disruptive/reforming model.

    Alternatively, the mechanical aspect of education has become much more pronounced. This embraces the idea of money and its excessive importance in our society. So we have the rise of the corporate university, HECS, the growth of overseas student numbers where this income exceeds that of agricultural production for instance, the acceleration of online learning/course delivery, the idea of the students as customers etc.

    The proposition that “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” has become deeply embedded in university culture. So the introduction of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) into promotion and annual review criteria for academics includes goals such as: number of published papers in quality journals[research]; Student Satisfaction Survey numbers in your teaching criteria[teaching]; number of media appearances promoting your research etc[community].

    What is so very apparent is that in the army/services, in church structures and in universities, there is a clearly defined rank or pecking order. “We know our pecking order to a peck”, someone confided to me once. When I was first a uni student, academics were often indistinguishable in their dress but now senior staff are invariably recognised by suits and ties/more formal dress code in female leaders etc.

    This measurement paradigm is very evident in vocational education and training where learning outcomes are ticked off and verified with some logic in the process. I was amused once when an overseas student said to a lecturer: “You failed me! But I thought you like me!” Not sure how that one fits in!

    Academics are promoted not only on their research and teaching but on their community contribution. This is more problematic. Does an academic like Eva Cox get the gong here? What about media appearances from those at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy? The diminution of this critical perspective becomes evident when an academic speaks against certain tenets of climate change and then is censored/removed from staff because that university has become a Centre of Excellence for Climate Change and draws significant income from that role. Do academics need authorisation from managers to speak in public? How strong is the idea of academic autonomy and independence? Senior leaders occasionally get requests to call of researchers because their findings may be ‘adverse’ to commercial or other agendas.

    Do these changes in universities enhance the quality of a university’s research, teaching and community profile?

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    If everyone has a degree, the qualification becomes worthless, except as an entry visa to Australia for foreign students and their families. The universities will survive, because they own the professional courses (medicine, dentistry, law). Graduates from the Humanities will go back to doing what they did before – labouring, shop work, driving taxis. They may be unemployable, but they owe the government a whole lot of money that they wouldn’t have if they just left school and got the same job for which they’ve just applied.

    The universities have failed because their criteria for success are irrelevant to most of their student population. Academic success rides on the back of PhD students: labour and research funding. Waffle about quality teaching is just that. If students are required to learn something, and the examinations are sufficiently rigorous, they will learn it, regardless of the supposed quality of the teacher. Just ask students in Medicine, Dentistry, and Law, who actually want to enter their professions.

    Despite the prevalence of Student Assessments of courses and teachers, my university has always resisted correlating student opinion with student outcome, even though this could be done automatically and anonymously. The reason is equally obvious – the worst student would give the worst assessments, and it is not in the university’s interest for this to be known, despite the fact that there are entire bureaucracies whose remit is to explore and explain this.

  • PeterD says:

    Hullo Brian,

    I’m responding to some specific comments you made in your posting.

    “Humanities will go back to doing what they did before – labouring, shop work, driving taxis”

    I would hardly call this a ringing endorsement of Humanities graduates, as if they could not aspire to anything more than these jobs, valuable though they are. The broader point is that people in many professions these days are being laid off in career paths that were once thought secure and this trend will continue with the impact of IT/artificial intelligence. The NAB is in the process of hiring thousands of IT graduates but letting go similar numbers with finance qualifications, indeed some with multiple degrees in finance. The trend is also underway in disciplines such as Law where huge data bases, algorithm etc can conduct tasks/perform searches etc which were previously time consuming and costly.

    “Academic success rides on the back of PhD students”.

    I worked in an Australian university in the 1990s when quality audits were conducted, with funding attached. What surprised me was that the university did not display their PhD students but highlighted and show-paraded their top courses. The surprising fact was how, in many universities, the top shelf of courses melted down to a small number – their unique, iconic courses. Professors and heads of discipline often only see courses in their discipline but VC and senior executives have to look across the full spectrum of courses and adopt a purview that is more systematic. It has been observed that academia is full of competing tribes based around disciplinary clusters and that the only thing that unites them is debate around car parking.

    “Waffle about quality teaching is just that.”

    I agree that there is considerable waffle around quality teaching and I am very aware that teaching is the poor, and almost unpresentable cousin, of research. Academics get promoted primarily on their research. Nevertheless, I recall Professor Richard Johnstone and another colleague at ANU conducting a study entitled “How do you know your degrees are any good?” It is a question well worth asking and I would be interested in how you answer this. My own view is that the best student perspectives come, not at the point of graduation, but four or five years later; and employer views are worth including in the mix.

    “and the examinations are sufficiently rigorous.”

    You only refer to exams not assignments and ongoing assessment. The assessment model of everything being bundled into a final exam[summative assessment] rather than ongoing assessment{formative assessment] is common in the disciplines you refer to.

    When you refer to ‘waffle’ you don’t really take on board the preoccupation with measurement I referred to. NAPLAN is an example but a majority of teachers in schools, I believe, have strong reservations about this approach. Everything is measurable apparently. Harry Seidler, while travelling, used to observe buildings – theirs for their style, I’ll study – but his wife, Penelope, asked the most interesting question: “What’s the thing that makes it sing?” Even in disciplines of architecture, town planning etc there is a subjective/aesthetic element that defies measurement but is detectable! Just check out the proliferation of ACT apartments with bizarre levels or, conversely, check out the Aborethum.

    “Student Assessments of courses….there are entire bureaucracies whose remit is to explore and explain this”

    I don’t see how students can assess courses until they have some perspective of being in the workforce for some years. I also believe that employer reps/perspectives on course review committees are essential and that regular revision of courses keeps them relevant. Students can validly comment on aspects of teaching and on how they perceive their own learning. I know that some academics see this as a popularity contest and even with Graduate Surveys some universities strategically administer these in the warm glow of graduation ceremonies etc. Are there flaws in the system: definitely?

    The idea of ‘entire bureaucracies’ administering these systems may have been true once but hardly now. In many universities there is one person who administers the Student Satisfaction Surveys etc but it is IT/computer technologies that do all the work and soon, given artificial intelligence, there may be no person but heaps of technology. I always did a small amount off teaching and half-way through the semester I asked students one question: “In the second half of this semester, have you any suggestions on how to improve your learning in this course?” In the days of WebCT, Blackboard and Moodle replies are anonymous and confidential and exclusive to any teacher.

    In terms of an overall response to your posting, I emphasise different aspects of universities. The corporate university, credentialism, HECS, overseas students, research funding and grants, money, money, money, jobs, jobs, jobs: these are the simple commercial agendas of our age but surely there’s more than that.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    Hi Peter,

    I appreciate the thought that has gone into your response, and apologise if the sarcastic tenor of my remarks was somewhat off-putting.

    I am sure that there are many very worthy students enrolled in Humanities courses, but I think it is unarguable that there are also many worthless courses offered by almost all of the universities. There is not even a pretence that they prepare the students for life in the real world.

    I have no regard for university chiefs, but they are not stupid. They know that the proles recognise that few of their children are ever getting into the PhD stream, so it’s more important to persuade them that the courses offered are competitive, and worth the money. I was amused to see that your university experiences were tempered by the reality of parking on campus.

    I believe we agree on many of your other points. I noted that my university, at least, refuses to correlate ‘student satisfaction’ with outcome, and almost no-one takes any notice of the results, although they are required for annual performance appraisals. The results of these surveys may well be confidential, but if they want to improve outcomes, they are not asking the right questions.

    Peter, I have spent my life in universities, on several continents. Far from being an eagle, like Don, my perspective is that of a mole, but maybe the thwack of a 5 iron by your ear forces a confrontation with reality.

    • PeterD says:

      Hi Bryan,

      There is one point I must respond to: parking on campuses. In some ways, over a period of sixty years, this issue, more than anything, encapsulates the changes in university life. In 1965@USyd I couldn’t afford a car as a student; as a member of staff in the 1990s@CSU I could park almost anywhere at a rural university, free of charge; as a student at the University of Wollongong from 2003-2007 I could park on weekends free of charge but not during the week; at UC, in 1999 I could park anywhere but over the last ten years I rode my push bike and about six years ago, before I retired, even bikes were being corralled into purpose-built shelters; and paid parking came in everywhere a year after I retired. I have parked as an outpatient at the Pharmacy/Health building at UC last year and there are now controlled gates, as well as extremely narrow, meanly designed parking bays. The corporate university is upon us and frankly as a father of three children who attended university twenty years ago, I don’t know how contemporary students and their parents make ends meet.

  • spangled drongo says:

    Do the universities pay the $15,000 per table?

    “At one corner in Yorkville, in the ballroom of the upmarket Four Seasons Hotel, Polar Bears International (PBI) will stage a grand, $15,000-a-table gala to raise funds to protect the allegedly threatened Arctic species from the ravages of our addiction to fossil fuels.

    At another corner, exactly one block away, in the Founders’ Room at the down-market Toronto Reference Library, the Global Warming Policy Foundation of London, England will launch a new report on the state of polar bears by Susan Crockford, adjunct professor at the University of Victoria. There will be no entertainment, and no food, but the science will be far superior.

    The chief scientist at Polar Bears International is Steven Amstrup, adjunct professor at the University of Wyoming and a leading purveyor of the theory that climate change could exterminate polar bears from the Arctic regions. In recent months, Amstrup has launched direct attacks on Crockford and joined others in producing what can only be described as junk-science attempts to undermine her polar-bear research. In return, Crockford recently published a critique of Amstrup’s decades-long campaign to portray polar bears as an endangered species and establish them as the poster-species for climate change.

    Crockford’s conclusion is that PBI’s chief scientist and prime motivational guide, whose biographic page contains a catalogue of polar-bear alarmism, spent more than a decade creating a media scare that drove many (including Al Gore) to believe in a threat that didn’t exist. As Crockford wrote in a posting on her polarbearscience.com blog last month: “Polar bear experts who falsely predicted that roughly 17,300 polar bears would be dead by now (given sea ice conditions since 2007) have realized their failure has not only kicked their own credibility to the curb, it has taken with it the reputations of their climate change colleagues.”’


  • margaret says:

    “Perhaps advocates for the humanities don’t need to be defensive about the declining interest in pursuing degrees in these fields, which can lead to a meaningful as well as lucrative career.

    For, as investor Bill Miller has said with his big gift, the humanities are just as as important for the fabric of our society and our economy as science, technology, engineering and math.”


    • Don Aitkin says:

      I agree. I think we overdo the importance of STEM, and over-produce graduates in those areas, for whom there are not the jobs they thought would be there. We lose a lot of highly qualified STEM grads to the rest of the world.

  • David says:

    Australian Universities are clearly better than what they used to be.

    Today Australian universities rank highly on world lists. You only have to look at the staff lists for the various Business and STEM departments in Australia to see why. The high numbers of non-Anglo names are a reflection the capacity of Australian Universities to attract international talent.

    Go back 80 years and Australia’s best academics (McFarlan Burnett Howard Florey etc.) left to forge their careers in the UK. Today, because of the “rivers of gold” that flow from teaching foreign students, Australian universities cannot only afford to retain their best local talent but also attract academics like the current Australian of the year Professor Simmons and Nobel Prize winner Professor Schmidt.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    “The high numbers of non-Anglo names”

    Your example is Simmons? What about Doherty, Nossal, Ada, Blanden, Fenner; just a few in the biological sciences. Do you have a point, or is this the usual arm-waving?

  • bryan roberts says:

    These are people from my era, in my discipline. You have absolutely no idea what you are talking about.

  • Choshisokusan says:

    I should have pointed out that there are currently around fifty four thousand Indigenous university graduates across the country, two-thirds women, overwhelmingly urban, and perhaps 90 % from mainstream degree-level courses that”s around 48,000 in the 2016 Census, plus about 3,000 in 2016 and again in 2017. It”s puzzling why parity in graduate numbers between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians isn”t one of the Closing the Gap” targets: perhaps the concept of Indigenous university graduate” is too new for policy-makers. Here”s another stat: Indigenous women are commencing university study at a slightly higher rate (for their respective populations) than NON-Indigenous Australian men. And another one: Indigenous graduates are 95 % likely to marry non-Indigenous graduate partners, and both working. They are very likely to ensure that their children go on to university study. And another one: in 2016, Indigenous university commencements rose by 12 % for most of the past ten years, the annual increase has been around 8 % yes, commencement numbers in award-level courses has risen from 3,139 in2006 to 6,715 in 2016, or 114 %. These are Ed. Dept figures, which may under-count Indigenous university numbers by as much as 30%, relative to Census figures. So why isn”t university participation one of the Closing the Gap” targets ?

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