Christopher Pyne’s bid to reform the tertiary sector is great, so far as it goes — and that’s the problem, it doesn’t go anywhere near far enough. Beset by bureaucrats, nonsense degrees, credentialism and delusional self-regard, our universities are bad and getting worse
This government is going to put its university reforms to the Senate once again in the very near future. The gist of its plan is to uncap university fees (to go with the former Labor government’s uncapping of places), to cut funding to universities by 20%, and to index student loans to a measure of inflation (the consumer price index).
Now let me be plain. I whole-heartedly support these reforms, and I do so despite the fact (not because of it) that 41 of 42 vice-chancellors approve of the reforms. It is not this North Korean-style level of support emanating from the registries of our overly bureaucratic and overly administered universities that leads me to want the changes to come in. The fact is that forcing university students to pay for more of their tertiary education will plainly have good consequences.
Right now those who don’t go to university – the hairdressers, plumbers, and myriad others – effectively pay taxes to massively subsidize those who do. If you go to university, depending on the discipline, the taxpayer is picking up some two-thirds of the overall cost. Why should that be? Why should people who statistically will earn more over their lifetime – indeed, for many, a good deal more — be subsidized by those who will earn less? This is the most regressive set-up imaginable. It sticks in the craw to hear opponents of these reforms bleat on about ‘fairness’ and ‘equity’. The set-up today, the status quo, involves poorer people paying for richer people so that richer people can earn more over their entire lives.
How does anyone, Mr. Shorten, get away with characterizing that as ‘fair’? Only by assuming that government money is some sort of free good does that work. Are you listening, all you pseudo-socialist independent senators?
And this at a time when so many students go to university. So a second benefit of these reforms, one not talked about, is that once you pay a fair bit for something you start to look more carefully at what you’re buying. Far too many Australian students at present are enrolled in what can only be described (my terms) as somewhat dubious degrees. I will refrain of enumerating the courses that I wouldn’t let my kids go near if their lives depended on it. Let’s just say that some of them come close to being of negative value, that you have more value in the job market before you do the degree than you do after you’ve been graduated. Send your kids to a hard-nosed grammar teacher to teach them to write, a virtually lost skill even amongst top students, rather than take some of the degrees presently on offer. I leave it to readers to list their own choices of ‘interesting’ or ‘dubious’ or ‘I wouldn’t take that if the alternative was water-boarding’ degrees. (editor’s note: like this, for example?)
Here’s the thing: a university degree is of great worth to later life. But that’s a general (‘on average’) claim, a claim that is true as a statistical truth but not in all circumstances all the time. It doesn’t follow from that general claim that all degrees are of equal value, or even that all are of some value or any value at all. And that is the case even in a country such as Australia, which strikes me as credential mad in requiring credentials and degrees for a range of jobs that patently do not require such university (or other) credentials.
The politically correct ethos of the day shuns saying this out loud, but the truth is that the value of a degree depends upon:
- Which university awards your degree. (A Group of Eight university degree is worth more, often far more, than one awarded by a university set-up last year, even if that new university is situated in a marginal constituency and so can now never be disbanded.)
- How you performed in obtaining that degree. Finishing in the top tenth of your graduating class bestows far better career prospects, and earning power, than finishing in the bottom tenth, or fifth, or even half. That being the case, you are better off putting all your time into getting higher marks than on working for half the week while purportedly in full-time studies. This practice of working while studying is rampant in Australia. By contrast, when I teach a course in Canada or the US or the UK, virtually none of the law students are working. Those that are tell no one. And they pay higher fees than here, a lot higher. (A law degree at the University of Toronto will cost you about $50,000 per year in tuition. And that’s cheaper than in the US. And Canadian students would kill to go to the University of Toronto law school. And no one in Australia is talking about reforms that would see fees even remotely in that league. But of course the government pretends, yes hypocritically pretends, that what we offer here is in the same league. See below.)
- What sort of degree you opt to take. Is it engineering? Is it philosophy (a degree worth a lot in my view, as you can see from looking at how many CEOs of top companies in the US took philosophy)? Is it economics? Is it gender studies? Is it sociology? Is it tourism? To pretend these will all offer equal life opportunities, that they all contribute equally to the so-called ‘knowledge economy’ is straight out bunk. Believe that and I have some lakefront property in western Queensland you might like to buy.
4) How many others choose to take that same degree. Take my discipline of law. Australia today churns out more law graduates, per capita, than does the US. This is bonkers. Sure, one can see why every brand new Aussie university immediately aims to set up a law school. Law is cheap to run and gives a sort of (warranted or otherwise) prestige to a university that has a law faculty. But when you’re part of the limited number of medical graduates that is worth a heck of a lot more than when you are part of a nearly unlimited number of law students.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Facile and trite genuflecting before the supposed god of a ‘knowledge economy’ masks all of these things. The Abbott government’s mooted reforms would help with them all by putting a truer price on what you are studying. And it would be fairer, except in the Bizarro world of Labor and the Senate independents, where middle class kids should get subsidized by hairdressers and plumbers. You know, the world in which government money just drops from heaven like mana, never to be taken away from anyone who already receives it – the same world that refuses to observe that the ₤9,000 pound top-limit tuition these past few years in the UK has led to no reduction in students wanting to go to university, or to poor students flooding out of the system.
I said above, though, that I support these reforms despite the VCs and university bureaucracies also supporting them. That’s because a bunch of the problems with our universities flow from how massively bureaucratic our universities are. They are centralisation run mad. I know that uber-centralisation is not seen as a criticism amongst our federal MPs, on either side of politics. But my lord it makes for insane inefficiencies! And then there is how many top university managers we have in this country, paid heaps of money even when compared to similar jobs in the UK or Canada. I have never in my life been described as a friend of the unions. But given the choice, bitter as it would be, of the unions or the present top-heavy East German style uni bureaucracies running our campuses, I’d opt for the unions. I’ve been arguing for a while now for this government to mandate that each university publish such things as the ratio of teaching/researching staff to administrative staff (including top end VCs, DVCs, PVCs, AVCs, and the rest) and to demand publication of the salaries of the top 25 paid employees of each university and whether they are in the classroom and researching or are bureaucrats (hint: virtually all would be the latter). Mr. Pyne could demand these things and they would be very popular. But not with the VCs he seems intent on consulting. Anyway, there is no hint anyone else likes these ideas.
One last thing. If you pretend that our universities are wonderful at present, it makes it difficult to argue for change. However, in my view the present reality, right now, is not good. Sure, on some rankings that measure research performance (albeit often in hard-to-defend ways such as numbers of Nobel Prize winners or ‘reputation’) we do pretty well. We get one university in the top 50, maybe. A few more in the top 100. But this is a near meaningless criterion for 99.99% of people. What matters is the quality of undergraduate degree teaching.
I will here merely assert the following, but am happy to defend it at length. In terms of the quality of undergraduate degrees — contact with top professors (so not off on some ARC five-year break from teaching), size of classes, quality of the university of experience, and virtually every other factor you think important — the quality here in Australia is poor. We are already, today, well behind Canada. That’s why my two kids who had great high school educations here in Brisbane were encouraged to go to Canadian universities. Oh, and we’re behind the UK. And the US. Heck, I think you get a better undergraduate deal in New Zealand. (Parents, send your kids to Otago if you want them to have the residence university experience at an affordable price.)
The point is that we need these reforms now. Not because we may go downhill. No, because things are already not very good. Today. Don’t expect any minister to admit that, regardless of which side of politics he or she comes from. It’s the ‘Emperor has no clothes’ admission they politically cannot make. But take it from me. It’s true.
Pass these reforms you trumped up, self-important Senate independents. We need them now.
James Allan, Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland, is the author of Democracy in Decline