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Letter from Australia: Three little words

In her letter from Australia, Julie Hare argues that the status quo of who gets to use the title of “university” is up for serious debate.
This article is more than 4 years old

Julie is Wonkhe's Associate Editor in Australia.

By my back-of-the-envelope calculations, since the Coalition came to power in 2013, it has conducted at around 55 reviews that have required the input of the tertiary education sector.

While some have been tangential to the operations of the sector, such as Austrade’s role in attracting investment into Australia or a review of soft power by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the vast majority have been firmly focused on universities, research and (a few) vocational education.

This is a lot of reviews (almost one every six weeks) and one imagines it all comes at considerable cost to the institutions and groups responding to them. One would like to think that the cost was matched with outcomes, but I fear that might not be the case.

A good many were quietly released months after delivery to the Minister and never received a formal response. I suspect a number will never see the light of day, what with a federal election looming.

The current crop of reviews range from the ideological and myopic (freedom of speech) to the truly arcane (VET data policy).

One of the current reviews that is both arcane and contentious is on provider category standards. That’s three little words in which lies a whole world of pain and protecting of one’s turf.

In layman’s speech, it’s about who gets to use the title “university”. It’s being run by former vice-chancellor and elder statesman of the sector Peter Coaldrake and is scheduled to report later this year.

One assumes that should there be a change in government the Labor Party will be interested in its recommendations, considering it has promised a full Augur-style review of the post-secondary education landscape. This is esoteric stuff, but it matters a lot.

A discussion paper was released in December and submissions to the review are due this month.

What’s a university?

Currently, there are five categories of university and one category for non-university of higher education providers.

Weirdly, there are 43 institutions deemed to be universities but 40 of them sit in just one category – that of Australian university.

Alongside the 40 universities, there is one university of specialisation and two overseas universities (although one has closed). There are no university colleges or overseas overseas universities of specialisation – and there never has been and there has never been any aspirants to those categories.

There are 127 non-university higher education providers.

Of the 43 universities, 37 are large public comprehensive institutions which teach and conduct research across a broad range of disciplines. Most have been around since at least the late 1980s after the Dawkins reforms amalgamated former colleges of advanced education and institutes of technology into new or merged institutions.

Three are private – Bond, Notre Dame and Torrens. All are anomalies and their existence is the result of state-based politics and networks at the time of their conception.

Neither Bond nor Torres receive any government teaching subsidies for undergraduates, while Notre Dame (which is loosely related to the storied US institution but has no funding or academic ties to it) receives 80% if its revenue from government in the form of teaching subsidies.

There are two listed overseas universities: Carnegie Mellon, which set up shop in Adelaide in 2006 as part of the South Australian government’s (failed) attempt to establish it as a “university city”. It currently has around 600 students. Adelaide also lays claim to University College London, part of the same push, which arrived in 2008, but closed its doors in early 2018. With a focus on bespoke postgraduate courses in mining and energy and considerable funding from big mining companies, such as Santos, UCL looked like it was on a winner. But a change in UCL vice chancellor in 2015 and a change in direction saw it swiftly abandoned.

(Cranfield University entered the fray and left again before the blink of an eye).

And then there is one is a university of specialisation (University of Divinity) which earned its stripes a couple of years back despite having been around since 1910.

Second-class citizens

The 127 higher education providers which teach 133,000 have very different rules and funding arrangements from universities. Their students are treated very differently too.

A large number have religious affiliations and teach theology and education. Others teach business degrees. Some are truly unique.

Of them, just 12 have self-accrediting status.

Most are not eligible government subsidies (although some have a capped number of places) and students in most – but not all – can access government loans to pay their fees. But they have to pay a 25% fee on top of their loan to do so. There are also caps on how much they can borrow. (The 25% fee also applied to the three private universities and the University of Divinity but was quashed at the beginning of this year.)

By and large, there are huge incentives for students to enter mainstream higher education and a number of disincentives to enrol in a NUHEP. But still they come. There were 133,000 students in registered NUHEPs at last count.

Given the extensive list of financial and other barriers to joining the elite ranks of those with a university title, few have even tried. And the entitled 43 are keen to keep it that way.

What’s at stake?

The Coaldrake review asked interested parties to address five key questions including the defining characteristics of a HEP and university; whether the current framework was still relevant; what needs to be updated, eliminated or reimagined and how all this would impact on providers, students, industry, the regulator and the broader community.

It’s apparent that those who hold the title university – almost all for historical reasons – feel it should remain restricted to a very few. They believe that by allowing new types of providers access to the title – no matter how high the barriers – the value of the title university would be diluted – as will their capacity to exploit the goodwill that comes with the brand and all the other incentives that come their way.

There is an explicit concern that any recasting of the provider category standards would inevitably lead to the establishment of teaching-only universities. This is an anathema to the university sector, despite the fact, in reality, some universities in fact do very little first-class research and might actually be better at teaching than they are at research.

Indeed, a 2017 Productivity Commission report found “there was little empirical evidence that a positive teaching-research nexus exists (particularly at the undergraduate level)” and there is “no compelling policy rationale for requiring high-quality providers to conduct research in order to label themselves as a university”.

Ouch. Talk about slaying the sacrificial lambs!

And while there is still abhorrence in the Australian sector at the idea of teaching only, over the past decade universities have gone ahead and created large cohorts of teaching-only workforces both by design (making full-time teaching-only positions) and by default (chronic casualisation of the academic workforce).

Bond and Notre Dame have earned well-deserved reputations for their teaching-focused undergraduate education with small class sizes and student-centric approaches. New models such as the Victoria University’s block model are providing evidence that new pedagogic approaches are both necessary and rewarding.

And there’s the funding question. If more providers are accepted as universities or new categories of higher education providers are created what does that mean to the divvying up of the diminishing funding pie.

Universities want the status quo to remain. Why? They do very well out of it. For one they get funded through the Commonwealth Grants Scheme for research they might or might not do. Another is that they can use that money to cross-subsidise research that helps them climb the rankings. That in turn gives them a serious advantage over institutions that don’t conduct research, and aren’t ranked and aren’t called university. Because that’s how universities roll.

There appears to be a callous disregard for what might actually be in the best interests of students.

But Coaldrake himself appears to have a different perspective.

“In thinking about provider categories we should think of students and student pathways and not focus so entirely (as many people seem seem to) on the categories from the perspectives of the institutions,” Coaldrake told Wonkhe.

If anyone thinks the status quo is a sure thing, think again.

One response to “Letter from Australia: Three little words

  1. I don’t understand how ‘For one they get funded through the Commonwealth Grants Scheme for research they might or might not do.’ is consistent with ‘Another is that they can use that money to cross-subsidise research that helps them climb the rankings.’

    Surely all public universities use Commonwealth Grant Scheme funds to employ academics on teaching and research appointments, and thus use these funds to support research.

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