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May 22nd 2014 print

Philippa Martyr

The Ivory Towers’ Golden Hoards

The higher education sector is long overdue for massive reform. Its ability to absorb vast quantities of money and give very little in return – except for an enormous increase in the number of people with PhDs driving taxis in our major cities -- is surely a starting point for closer examination

uni wealthI was driving home past UWA today and saw some signs posted outside its main entrance by its waggish young students: ‘For Sale’, and other droll utterances. I wasn’t able to catch much of the ABC’s coverage of this and other demonstrations, but I gathered from the general tone of breathless indignation that Joe Hockey had gone round to every single university in the country, wearing a striped T-shirt and a mask and carrying a bag labelled ‘Swag’, and deprived those hard-working young students, labouring away at those fine institutions, of their rightful dosh.

What a shame that this was allowed to happen (note to everyone concerned: the budget hasn’t been passed yet, so none of this has actually happened). I mean, what this country is just crying out for is more hefty girls in laddered tights and hennaed hair, with no apparent skills beyond making cheap placards and sitting down heavily in the one place. I’m not quite sure what degrees these people are completing, but my hunch is that they won’t be our future commerce experts, or physicists, or engineers.

(There was a certain – shall we say – heteronormativity to these demonstrators; a certain whiteness of complexion, and a certain softness of belly which gave them a distinct uniformity. It was not a uniformity suggestive of merit, enterprise, diligence, accountability and a bright future. It was rather a uniformity suggestive of daycare centres and a world where Playdough is one of the five food groups. But I digress.)

I pondered as I drove home that UWA has always enjoyed a local reputation for being absolutely rolling in it. It has an impressive investment portfolio and occupies a lot of very prime real estate. So I went and had a look at the financial report, and sure enough,  in 2013 UWA had an operating result on its balance sheet of $124,777,000, more than the gross national product of certain small independent nations. In short, if UWA were to go up for sale, whoever sold it would be very well off indeed, and could probably afford to build an entirely new university somewhere and give masses of people scholarships to it, and employ a raft of really top-class teachers, all without asking the government for a penny.

I looked also at some of the other Great Eight universities. The University of Sydney is crying poor because, although it had an operating balance of $136.1 million for the financial year ended 31 December, 2012, a big chunk of it is tied up in cruel and unusual ways, which actually puts it in debt to the tune of -$46 million. Unlike other corporations, this failure has not resulted in anyone important being sacked, or even – in the great Australian tradition – being given a massive amount of money simply to go away and stop embarrassing them. The University of Melbourne had an operating result of $104,610,000 in 2012, although the University of Adelaide only made $60,338,000 in the same year. The University of Queensland ended up with an operating result of $118,229,000 in 2013. And in 2012, ANU made $62,420,000.

This looks like quite a lot of money to some people, and I’m sure those cross young students would be interested to learn that their beloved alma maters are absolutely stuffed to the gills with cash. Wouldn’t it be nice to think that this cash could also help to defer some of the pain that will be inflicted on the poor students by the evil Coalition government? I notice the universities themselves are silent on this topic, preferring to hide behind the hefty girls in laddered tights who are sitting down heavily in the one place to protect the profit margin of these bloated and greedy corporations.

The higher education sector in Australia is long overdue for massive reform. The sector’s ability to absorb vast quantities of Commonwealth and state money and give very little in return – except for an enormous increase in the number of people with PhDs driving taxis in our major cities — is surely a starting point for closer examination.

Philippa Martyr occasionally blogs at Transverse City. She once attended a sit-in at the vice-chancellor’s office at UWA in around 1990, only to realise that the VC agreed entirely with proposed funding cuts because they wouldn’t touch her six-figure salary. This was the end of Martyr’s interest in student politics as it pertained to large and wealthy universities.