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  • Writer's picturePete Jonson

Paying the piper

Updated: Jun 22, 2020

He who pays the piper will in the end always call the tune : Reforming Australian Universities.

Courtesy Johanness Leak, The Australian

Australian universities have been generously funded for many years now. University the preserve of the academic elite of school leavers now educates 60% of them. Universities with large endowments (the sandstones) are likely to weather the present financial crisis. Newer universities that rely almost totally on government and student fees, especially full fees paid by overseas students, will be in more precarious positions.

Well endowed universities have so far been able to fund all sorts of research. Medical research and some other sorts of scientific and engineering research have done well and provide significant benefits to the community. What is not clear is whether research for the sake of research in other areas has always been a nett positive.

Taxpayers generally are more keen on jobs and public goods than academic pursuits. We are all familiar with the phenomenon of the charming young person who serves you your coffee and has a degree but cannot find any other employment. Universities degrees from the lower ranking universities are increasingly unlikely to result in better job opportunities.

The costs of fighting the pandemic are massive and it will take decades to reduce government debt to a point where an Australian government can fund another catastrophe, including warfare.

Australia's universities are facing a change of tune. There are several effects operating.

Overseas students who have paid full fees are coming in lesser numbers. Partly this is due to Australia's closed borders, though Chinese students have also been advised not to come by Chinese leaders who allege that Australia is a dangerous place for these students. The effect is not all bad as many academics say a lot of overseas students are not very good at speaking and writing English and this has lead to a lowering of academic standards.

The Federal government has now announced plans to alter the structure of fees for all students. Things taxpayers should like, including engineering, mathematical and scientific disciplines, will have lower fees which should encourage students to enrol in these work friendly subjects.

Subjects that do not lead to useful jobs will charge much higher fees, including commerce, law, and the humanities. The problem here is that there are too many people with such qualifications. Given the government's 'jobs, jobs, jobs' desires, this over time should make universities more effective job producers. Let's be honest. A school leaver with little prospect of employment may quite rationally choose to enrol in a second rate degree from a third rate university rather than go on the dole. However, given the financial crisis Australia now faces, this is a luxury we cannot afford.

A further point is that many taxpayers think Australia has too many universities. I have been told there are currently three categories of Australian universities - well funded, averagely funded and verging on bankrupt. Assuming the new fee structure helps the first and second categories of universities we may expect the third category to contain a number of institutions facing bankruptcy. This would be an excellent opportunity to convert such institutions to the more relevant technical colleges. More well trained technical experts, including apprentices, would fill a large gap in Australia's workforce.

Our very best students will still be able to study fine arts, commerce, law and philosophy in our top tier universities. There will always be students for whom the investment in a history or philosophy major is a sensible investment. But we surely not need every university offering every subject discipline?


Fiona Priorhas gone in search of the 21st century’s most innovative thinkers. She has come up with a treasure trove. More here.

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