Our Unaccountable Universities

Salvatore Babones, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Sydney, opens with a statement of the obvious: “Australia’s universities are in crisis.” You wonder how often this observation and supporting arguments for it have to be made before government, and the people at large, wake up to it. Three years ago, William Coleman published his edited collection of essays, from a range of senior academics, Campus Meltdown: The Deepening Crisis in Australian Universities. It sank like the proverbial stone, generated no discussion or debate.

Babones points out “the extensive powers” that governments possess with regard to universities, and “the important duties they have to ensure that universities fulfil their public service missions”. He urges that the country at large “needs to know much more about its universities and their operations” in order for the urgently-needed reforms to come about. But here is the first problem with his argument: it assumes that there is a potential, substantial level of interest in the community about tertiary and higher education. Australians, amongst the least intellectually-inclined and engaged of peoples, are mostly uninterested in the ways in which universities are conducted, or the content of their teaching and research. And this, astonishingly, includes alumni themselves. They are very interested in the outcomes of that process: they want highly-skilled doctors, lawyers, vets, economists, teachers and so on, and are mightily dissatisfied (as they increasingly are) if their expectations are not met in those areas. One hears from senior lawyers, for example, of newly-minted, highly-credentialled graduates who cannot compose a letter to a client, or recognise simple grammatical errors in such as the draft of a contract, where mistakes of this kind could have serious consequences in law.

To move these dissatisfied employers to the next logical step of concentrating on what has gone so terribly wrong in the tertiary institutions (and, indeed, prior to attendance at them, in the schools) is, it seems, a bridge too far. And, related to this, I am not sure about Babones’s contention that “Australian news media do an exceptionally good job of reporting on universities”. If this derives from his comparisons with other Western countries’ media, one wonders how bad a job they must be doing there. The Australian media know that the people are uninterested in education generally, and universities particularly, so the reporting, in fact, is minimal; and informed and serious debate (badly needed) is almost non-existent on vital topics such as “freedom of speech, cancel culture, and (a lack of) viewpoint diversity”, which Babones rightly signals as essential issues, while elsewhere claiming—astonishingly—that “academic freedom is alive and well in Australia”!

This review appears in the latest Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe

Sweepingly, he asserts that “intellectually challenging people are not being hired … events are not being cancelled, they are simply not being held. Books are not being written. Papers are not being published … Western civilisation isn’t falling in battle with the forces of evil. It is dying in the darkness of neglect.” One might take issue with at least one of these declarations: his contention that “forces of evil” are not active in universities. Reference to recent Australian campus history, where opponents of colleagues with counter-cultural conservative views have no compunction in resorting to criminal activity, threats of physical violence and outrageous defamation in order to rid their campuses of such colleagues, would seem to contradict the idea that Western civilisation is simply dying by passive neglect. The endorsement of Western civilisation and its works is being actively eradicated and the “forces of evil” routinely go unreproved (and, therefore, are tacitly endorsed) by the authorities, avid to display their woke credentials. Six of the Group of Eight (Go8) universities, Babones notes, have Confucius Institutes funded by the Chinese government. But only one of them was prepared to welcome the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation.

What is happening in our universities is “a moral crisis”, he writes—and an intellectual one, we might add. “It is a breach of faith, a betrayal of the public trust.”

Babones goes deeply into the details of the supposed funding crisis in universities and, with his mathematics background, does a thorough and persuasive analysis of this endlessly-repeated claim, wryly noting that it is “hard to square the rapidly rising university executive remuneration of the last two decades with a narrative of chronic austerity”. Australian taxpayers are “poorly served” by a “credulous media” (so much for the compliment he gave them earlier) amplifying the “steady drumbeat of dire warnings” about the financial position of universities. He concludes that nothing less than “mendacity … underlies much of the received wisdom about Australian university funding”.

In relation to this, he exposes the myth that the international student market has been a financial boon for the sector. Australia has “stratospherically high international student enrolments”, three times that of the UK; six times that of the US. So far from this being financially advantageous, his detailed analysis of the figures shows that “domestic students have been subsidising international students, not the other way round”. The “massive expansion in international student numbers”, to the point where they are almost one third of the Australian student population, has “made matters worse, not better”. He argues that this market is pursued so relentlessly as it provides discretionary resources for management to support “big-ticket … centrally-funded research initiatives”.

But this is not only a funding matter; more seriously, it also has negative impact on the quality of teaching and learning in our universities. A friend’s daughter told me of her experience in senior Economics, at one of the Go8 places, where she was often the only non-Asian member of the class, and where others spent much of the time looking up the meaning of words such as therefore and however on their laptops. What level of oral participation could there be, of lucid discussion and informed debate (which, once, were at the heart of university teaching and intellectual training of any quality) when students are struggling at an elementary level with the language of instruction? Postgrad students from Asian countries with BAs in English are allowed to enrol in Master’s courses in the subject, even though their competencies in both the language and literature in English are, at best, at the level of local first-year undergraduates.

There are multitudes of cases like these, but any academic who is so unwise about his or her future prospects as to raise objections to what is going on at the coalface, in the classroom, can be effectively silenced by being denounced as a “racist”, today’s all-purpose career-cancellation and character-assassination term.

Relentlessly delving further into the murky depths of university governance, Babones demonstrates how students (whether domestic or international) are bearing “the burden of financing ratings success”, where Australian universities repeatedly do very well—a “good news story” that is not so good once you dig beneath it, he argues. These ratings depend disproportionately on ranking-eligible research outputs which customarily exclude “traditional humanities disciplines like history, literature or philosophy”, and vocational disciplines such as law, but focus on “big science”. The academics benefiting from this funding from the students “are not the academics who actually teach their classes”. Money that was “collected to fund education”—teaching and learning, which are now “such low priorities”—is redirected “toward the funding of rankings-eligible research outputs”. Devastatingly, he comments that this has “warped Australian higher education in ways that will take decades to reverse—if it is reversed at all”. Universities exist “to serve the students, not the other way around”.

Babones refers to the bloated size of the contemporary Australian university, “very large by international standards”. The overseas universities which our largest Go8 places like to fancy are their equivalents—Oxbridge, for example, or the Ivy League such as Dartmouth, with 6000 students—have a small fraction of the enrolments at our largest campuses. The non-Ivy League, but elite University of Chicago, has just 7000 students. Our four biggest have 70,000. This alerts us to what Ross Gittins has described in a recent article (Sydney Morning Herald, February 16) on the regrettably-neglected Shergold Report, from Professor Peter Shergold and David Gonski, in 2020. This examined vocational education and training in New South Wales. Students, “forced to choose … opt for a uni degree, for which there are no upfront costs, rather than paying fees for certificate-level vocational education”. Many parents and students mistakenly believe, “because career advice is so poor”, that “the demand for vocationally-qualified workers is in decline”. This is simply a mistake, “as Federal figures show shortages in many trades”. Further, “a rapid rise in demand is also forecast for certificate-trained workers in childcare, aged care and disability care”. Tellingly, “a significant proportion of university graduates move on to VET training to enhance their employability”.

What this plainly indicates is that there are far too many students at our universities, wasting their time and delaying their entry into income-earning employment in vocations which they are bound to find at least as rewarding as any job they can acquire with a degree in, say, Gender or Media Studies. There are far too many students who should never have gone to university in the first place and, accordingly, failing, or gaining a useless and worthless degree, who could be thriving in the VET sector. In 1960, something like 5 per cent of eighteen-year-olds attended university; now it is approaching 50 per cent. Such figures are loudly trumpeted by politicians and vice-chancellors as a Great Leap Forward, but no one pauses to reflect on what such an influx is doing to the quality of university teaching and learning (particularly as this must now proceed from the ever-declining, lowly base of competency of Australian high school graduates in even elementary literacy and numeracy), of the degrees subsequently awarded and of the employment prospects of having a degree which everybody else possesses. Gilbert and Sullivan sum it up: “when everyone is somebody, / Then no one’s anybody”. It is little wonder that the blight of credentialism has taken over our society, with degree piled upon degree, in increasingly futile attempts to stand out from the crowd of wannabe-employees.

What many will find of most concern in this book is Babones’s analysis in the chapter, “Have Australia’s universities been corrupted by China?” Once again, the theme of the public unaccountability of universities emerges, and the truly scandalous failure of successive federal governments, including the present, so-called “conservative” one, in Canberra, to call the universities to account with regard to what Babones alleges is “the staggering level of continuous behavioural self-regulation … going on behind the scenes”. The influence that China has gained in the universities is a result of this, he writes. Their dependence on “Chinese top-up funding for their most productive researchers”, which, in turn has its impact on the all-important rankings results, leads to “the real risk” that “Australia’s universities will compromise their values”—some of us would argue that that happened long ago—“in order to retain access” to “the massive Chinese subsidies embodied in Thousand Talents research … This is a boat that any Australian vice chancellor would be very reluctant to rock.”

Babones cites examples of this tendency, such as the fearfulness of UNSW of “offending China” when it deleted social media posts on its website that questioned China’s human rights records, while the University of Queensland, in a notorious case, expelled for “misconduct” a student, Drew Pavlou, who protested against Chinese government repression in Hong Kong. In fact, no one should be surprised by any campus cancellation of “unacceptable” opinion (of, for example, support for Israel), as it is now par for the course in Western universities generally, and certainly not confined to Australia. Say or think the “wrong” thing, even in private, and you’ll be booted out. What is perpetually astonishing and appalling is a government and, indeed, a people who, for the most part, find all this acceptable. They must do, as it proceeds unscrutinised and, for the most part, unreproved, when it is revealed. With regard to the Chinese matter, Babones ominously concludes, “unless Australian governments start pulling their weight … China will win”.

Anyone waiting for Australian governments to make any effective interventions in any aspect of the increasing meltdown of education, across the board, in this country will be waiting a long time.

Finally, Babones turns his attention to the question: “Why are teaching and learning such low priorities?” He has effectively answered this in what has gone before, especially in his focus on the obsession with ratings and their link to big-ticket research. The consequences of the university administrations’ neglect of what should be the core function of a university—teaching and learning—are truly mind-boggling, as he reveals them. Student satisfaction with campus experience is abysmal: Melbourne, supposedly Australia’s top-ranking university, “barely cleared the 50 per cent student satisfaction threshold in 2020”. Lest we are deluded into thinking that this might be just another bad phenomenon of the pandemic (which “coincided with a precipitous decline in student satisfaction”), Babones argues that “the student engagement crisis at Australian universities is not a passing problem, but a structural feature of the system”.

Online so-called learning is a development disastrous in every way for quality teaching and learning at university level, and it has been in place for more than a decade. Many universities tout degree courses that can be done entirely online as a great boon for their students, who need never set foot on campus, or engage in person, with anybody, fellow student or academic. It is the university administrator’s utopian dream, like “The Empty Hospital” episode in the satirical Yes, Minister series, where the institution is replete with staff, but no patients. This ghastly innovation inevitably aggravates what Babones describes as the already “abysmal” student attendance rates, which “a broad-based study” reported as being as low as 38 per cent in Australia. The situation has reached such absurd levels of degradation of what a university education should be that “most Australian university students are able to pass their degrees without actually attending classes”. Once again, he calls (one suspects, in vain, if past experience is anything to go by) for government intervention to bring the corrupted universities into line:

No government should seek to dictate what is taught in university classrooms. But governments have every right to dictate the terms on which teaching occurs. More than that: they have a responsibility, both to the students (to ensure the quality of teaching) and to the taxpayers (to ensure that their money is well-spent). The Australian government could generate strong pressures for improved undergraduate student outcomes by limiting universities to offering a modest number of well-defined, single-degree courses and then publishing uniform comparative data on student outcomes across universities for each degree. Currently, the Commonwealth legislates the macro-level structure within which Australian universities operate, but leaves the detailed design of the degree market to the universities. It should come as no surprise that the universities have structured that market to suit their own institutional priorities.

There is no question that this book is a valuable, challenging and timely contribution to essential matters with regard to the way Australia’s universities are currently misconducting themselves and, therefore, it is vital to this country’s future. One can only hope that, unlike previous attempts to stir debate and discussion about these issues, Associate Professor Babones’s study will garner the wide attention it deserves.

Australian Universities: Can They Reform?
by Salvatore Babones

Ocean Reeve Publishing, 2021, 205 pages, $29.95

Barry Spurr was an academic for forty years and was Australia’s first Professor of Poetry

11 thoughts on “Our Unaccountable Universities

  • andrew2 says:

    This is an important topic, not only for individual students but for the economy. Not only are student numbers high but degrees that used to be 3 years now take 4 or 5 years to complete. This partly appears to be caused by professional associations increasing educational gatekeeping requirements. However, the economic cost needs to be measured in terms of lifetime earning potential lost, which is most appropriately calculated by the income that would have been earned in prime to late years, Every extra year at University is hundreds of thousands of dollars lost for every student. The free future that the internet age was supposed to open up seems further away then ever.

  • BalancedObservation says:


  • BalancedObservation says:

    Thank you Barry Spurr. Great article.

    However you’re likely to be simply a voice in the wilderness. The lack of really objective knowledge in the community of our education sectors is monumental.

    So much so that the vested interests ( administrations and unions) are getting away with running things as they want to. Politicians simply don’t get the feedback and pressure they need from the community to improve things.

    A simple example I saw the other day of this lack of knowledge was a claim in the comments of a leading paper that the school system had been defunded. The person making the comment argued that helped explain why the Coalition polled as high as it did.

    No one challenged that view. It received a lot of likes as I recall. It was simply accepted as the truth. The contrary is true. School funding has increased massively over the last decade or so. What has changed is that standards measured objectively have actually continued to fall as funding has increased.

    The situation with tertiary education is worse than you state in this article. Publications like this pick up on the foreign influence and the wokeness but that wokeness and the culture surrounding it have added to the inefficiency of the system as well. Administration is costing us so much more than it needs to be and the financial viability of tertiary institutions is also being put at risk from the over reliance on foreign markets.

    The foreign influence and the potential for manipulation of opinion and free speech are well recognized by publications like this. But the problems go further.

    Try to get your head around this simple fact and it’s financial risk implications for the over reliance on a single market (not to mention the risks of foreign influence). Melbourne University, probably our most prestigious university, had 40% of its students before covid not from overseas but from one single market: communist China. It’s an outrage that was allowed to happen.

    The quality of our universities is critical for our economic future. We need to be prepared to take the action and spend what is necessary to ensure that the quality ( in all meanings of the word) is as high as is possible.

    Here are some things we should start doing immediately to improve quality:

    –recognise that not everyone is cut out for a university education and reinstate caps on entry numbers so that poorly qualified students don’t continue to pull down standards ( this is a cost saving);

    — do all we can to ensure the very top layer of students get the opportunity to attend university and make funding available for free places where necessary to make that happen ( this is an added cost but well worth it)

    –severely wind back to less than 5% foreign student numbers in our mainstream universities which should be kept predominantly for local students and some free places for underprivileged highly qualified students in our region ( this would represent a big revenue reduction for our universities but be well worth the quality improvements);

    –consider setting up separate commercial full fee paying universities for foreign students which don’t place a drain on resources from our existing universities which should be predominantly for the benefit of local students ( This may claw back some of the revenues lost by restricting foreign students from existing universities).

    — run independent audits of free speech including feedback from students and staff on the restriction of free speech and follow up with action to ensure that free speech is highly valued;

    — provide a completely independent complaints mechanism for staff and students on free speech

    — audit the administration costs per student in all universities and compare them with international standards and establish benchmarks for best practice – including this as one of the performance measures of university administrators).

  • Ceres says:

    Another aspect alluded to here are the international students and the assigned group work where the native English speakers end up basically completing assignments because of the poor command of English of many Asian students. They all get the same pass grade but with resentment from those who actually do the work.
    Can’t fail too many overseas students as the Universities love the money.

  • Stephen says:

    Thanks very much for this article it is absolutely spot on. I must take the time to read the book. When I graduated high school in 1968 only about 30 of the 200 in my year found a place at University. Only about half that number passed first year with some repeating and some dropping out. Academic standards must surely have been higher in those days. This assumption is at least partially confirmed by the fact that many major Tech Companies these days don’t hire many Uni graduates preferring to find talented young folk straight out of High School and training them on the job.
    This apprenticeship style approach is used by Apple, Google, IBM (who once ONLY hired graduates) and Tesla. Elon Musk of Tesla says that he wont hire graduates straight our of Uni at all.
    This trend seems to confirm that many graduates in Tech subject such as Engineering and Computer Science don’t actually have the skills their degrees should have equipped with and are also poorly socialized to deal with the work environment.
    I guess this is fair enough. Why should an employer pay good money to employ people who are too ignorant, fragile and woke.

  • Farnswort says:

    Ceres, you are spot on. The reliance on foreign student revenue is unhealthy and corrosive. The Federal government has encouraged this degradation and corruption of our universities by offering working rights and post-study visas to foreign students who complete a degree here. As Judith Sloan has noted, it’s “a relationship that involves the government effectively contracting out a big chunk of the migration program to self-serving educational institutions that elect to ignore the costs of the program while scooping up many of the benefits.”

    Australian universities like to claim they are offering “world class education” but in reality they are offering access to the Australian labour market and residency rights. That is why so many foreign students are lured here. It’s not an export industry, it’s a people-importing industry.

  • call it out says:

    I graduated some decades ago. Last year I attended a graduation function at a local university. 90% of the graduates, in Business/Commerce, were Chinese. Some of them presented papers. I judged them to be about third year high school standard. Their staff were all proud and smiling. Enjoying their good salaries, research grants, and make believe easy work.
    I was disgusted by the whole affair.

  • Louis Cook says:

    QUOTE BalancedObservation – 23rd April 2022
    Thank you Barry Spurr. Great article. (I agree)
    Melbourne University, probably our most prestigious university, had 40% of its students before covid not from overseas but from one single market: communist China. It’s an outrage that was allowed to happen. END Q

    Of course the CCP would send it students to universities in Australia to be guaranteed the very best instruction in Marxist doctrine. It then spreads as a disease across the Nation.

  • daccroker says:

    The Left’s long march through the education system has, to our detriment, succeeded.

  • whitelaughter says:

    Excellent article.
    Also worth remembering that the majority of overseas students don’t care about the degree, they are only interested in the residency rights that come with being a student.

  • Wayne Cooper says:

    Ceres makes a good point: the number of functionally illiterate overseas post-grad students I encountered as classmates at Sydney University Law School over a decade ago was breathtaking.

Leave a Reply