Australian neutral territory

The view from Down Under on what lies ahead for universities looks familiar, finds Roger Brown

July 18, 2013

Conventional universities are in a difficult position in modern, market-driven societies. Governments and the media criticise them for their costs, for their elitism and for their failure to adapt to the times. Universities believe themselves to be underfunded and unrewarded for prodigious increases in productivity, as well as subject to increasing regulation of an ever-more intrusive kind. Is there any way that this particular circle can be squared?

Drawing chiefly on Australian experience, and seeking a middle way between the would-be privatisers on the one hand, and the nostalgic “golden agers” on the other, Peter Coaldrake and Lawrence Stedman of Queensland University of Technology discuss a number of the advocated solutions, or what they term “policy myths”. Separating research from teaching undermines the distinctiveness of universities as teaching “unsettled knowledge”. Formal differentiation of institutions risks making universities less rather than more socially responsive. Designating a small cadre of “world class” institutions risks considerable waste of resources. Linking funding to performance also risks waste and is unlikely to produce the results desired. Deregulation risks creating unnecessary positional competition. Greater use of electronic platforms – “weapons of mass instruction” – is unlikely in the short term, and possibly undesirable in the longer run. Getting a handle on universities’ costs will be difficult as long as it is so hard to determine how and in what ways quality is linked to funding, not to mention the ever-accelerating proliferation and specialisation of knowledge. At the same time, the authors are realistic about the extent to which universities can ever be “safe” from government interventions, if not control. In particular, and drawing on both Australian and wider experience, they are sceptical of the value of buffer bodies. They are scathing about the ability of university vice-chancellors to organise themselves effectively for lobbying purposes. They are also doubtful about the ability of most university governing bodies to exercise effective stewardship of their institutions.

All this is good and thoughtful stuff, recalling some of the earlier work of Derek Bok, especially his 2004 book Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education. Certainly, the authors’ critique, if not dismissal, of these solutions is compelling as well as being highly relevant to the UK and other market-based systems. But Coaldrake and Stedman also doubt whether a convincing case can be made for “adequate” public funding on the basis of public benefits alone. Here they appear to overlook the contribution of Walter McMahon, who in Higher Learning, Greater Good? (2009) has provided a good case for increased public investment on precisely these grounds if both societies and individuals are to reap the full range of benefits from higher education. For this reviewer at least, a reversal of the present trend towards private funding, alongside ceaseless pressure on universities to make the best use of their resources and connect more effectively with their various communities, is the only way of resolving the basic dilemma with which the book is concerned.

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