|Hyena. Image by Martin Davies. www.daviesart.com|
“The new ground for Australian universities has been defined. The situation in academia – the morale, the workloads, the dramatically fallen quality of courses – is still catastrophic and a disgrace to a nation that purports to be an advanced society. But at least now we know that the situation will pick up in 4-5 years, and that the slide in Australian universities has probably bottomed out.” John Wojdylo
John Wojdylo is a physics lecturer and Webdiary columnist. His previous examinations of the crisis in our universites are They wouldn’t hurt a hair of us, they’d only let us die and The intellectual holocaust in our universities has just begun.
“Three quarters of a sigh of relief”, a highly-placed source in the AVCC was quoted as saying in the Australian newspaper this weekend (December 6-7).
As also reported in that newspaper, Deryck Schreuder, outgoing head of the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee, said last week that failure of the Nelson reforms to pass through the Senate would lead to a mortal blow to the morale of academic staff at Australian universities. I’m convinced his observation is closer to the truth than the grim picture painted by anti-Nelson-reform doomsayers in the ALP and the academic and student unions, who seem to be saying the opposite: that the mortal blow has now come with the passing of the reforms.
I believe they are wrong. Last Friday’s Senate decision is of momentous importance. It could have been better, but it could also have been much worse. Now, at last, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
One of the stunning aspects of the public debate was the instances of deliberate misinformation coming from all sides. On the government side, this was often driven by its industrial relations ideology, based on “neo-liberal” (in fact, neo-classical) economic dogma.
The ALP, on the other hand, was too often driven by political opportunism. The ALP should have let the legislation pass and changed it if or when it got into government. Even now, the benefits of the reforms will not have a serious impact until 2007-2008: had the ALP and Democrats succeeded in blocking the package, it’s very likely we would have been waiting until the next decade. Australia cannot wait that long to pick up the pieces of its university system.
On the unions’ side, whenever they went too far, it was driven by the marxist-collectivist utopian delusion that the public purse is there, ready for the taking, if only the general public were “properly educated” through a “proper public debate” on university funding. Tax the rich, and don’t talk to me about capital flight.
Too often, we glimpse a rerun of an old view: the class struggle between the fee-paying class – the innocent “victims” of capitalism – and the management bourgeoisie is raging. If the unions had succeeded, it would have been disastrous for all students at Australian universities, not just for those that can ill afford fees.
On the other hand, if unions had been completely silent, would the HECS repayment threshold have been raised to $35,000?
So, we’ve witnessed a defining characteristic of Australian-style liberal democracy. In our political system, it seems no single group is capable of adequately representing the interests of many. Somehow, too often, self-interest or private preoccupations override the community good. The powerful screw the silent. Consequently, interest groups (including government) vie for influence, we are subjected to cynical or delusory propaganda from all sides, as well as public debate in which even the basic starting points – the common “reality” – are disputed.
Not even the debate’s ground in reality can be agreed upon – let alone what would constitute a favourable outcome for most parties. So differences are irreconcilable: at best, we arrive at uneasy truces. The lack of a common vision for the future might be the cause – it’s certainly at least the symptom – of Australia being a naturally “post-modernist” country in this way.
Nevertheless, last Friday, the political system passed a major test. Four independent senators mustered enough positivity to pass the legislation. The negativity of the rest appears diminished in the afterglow.
Tony Abbott is right: Australia’s major failing is its negativity. Australians knacker themselves.
But he ought to recognise his own contribution to it. By his quasi-religious adherence to neoclassical economic dogma, he creates the conditions of injustice that give Marxist-influenced interest groups a natural role to play in Australian politics. By asserting an extreme that doesn’t contain the good of the community at its centre – a win-win situation that the vast majority can recognise – he also generates its opposite. Australia is like some guy who, every time he wills himself forward, finds that 20 reasons rise up in his head to conspire against it: he stifles himself and goes nowhere.
If Tony Abbott was quoted correctly by Christopher Pearson regarding the strings attached to $400 million of Nelson’s funding model [The Australian, October 4-5, 2003], the government’s main claim with regards to industrial policy was this:
“All we’re asking is that any further collective agreements will not rule out the option of Australian Workplace Agreements if individual members of staff want them.”
Any reasonable-minded person would read this and wonder how on earth the AVCC can claim that the government’s policy is intrusive. All the government wants – we see plainly here – is to give employees a fair choice. So, trusting Christopher Pearson’s journalistic integrity – that he has checked his facts – the reasonable reader is led to question the integrity of the AVCC, one of the major parties in the negotiations. In which case we’re seeing nothing more than a Clayton’s debate. The Mad Monk’s virtue shines through and invites us to have faith in him.
Unfortunately, no media commentator was interested enough in defending the process of public debate to dig up the facts. So the ordinary observer could not have made an informed decision: the debate could only be nonsensical to them, a mass of divided and irreconcilable opinions emanating from parallel universes. Who’s telling the truth? There’s no way to tell.
The facts – or what seems to me to be so – emerged much later, almost in passing, accidentally [The Australian, November 22, 2003]:
“Vice-chancellors would be happy to accept some proposed reforms but are not happy with the current prescriptive recipe,” said Virginia Walsh, executive director of the Group of Eight, the richest sandstone universities.
“The original proposal was for a general statement that AWAs not be precluded, and there was general acceptance. When the workplace requirements were announced months later, we find the Government is proposing to dictate a range of specific elements, including the number of casuals that can be employed, leave conditions and relationships with relevant unions.”
Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee president Deryck Schreuder said he was confident that agreement could be reached.
“Increasingly, the sector is using common law contracts to recognise position and performance on campus,” he said.
“Equally, we believe there would be a way of writing the rules that allows staff to say ‘I want an AWA’.
“I’m on a contract, as all the vice-chancellors are. It’s a contract of appointment, and it’s performance-based.”
Mr Howard said he found it strange that government demands for universities to offer individual workplace agreements had sparked such serious debate.
“I find it very interesting that one of the apparent areas of conflict between the university sector in relation to education reform is the Government’s insistence that if you as an academic employee want to have an individual workplace agreement you should have the right to have it,” he said. “I would have thought that was a given in Australia in 2003.”
Here, John Howard, too, plays the innocent, the virtuous. But the remarks by Virginia Walsh and Deryck Schreuder reveal Howard and Abbott’s ploy. Tony Abbott had been sowing misinformation right from the beginning, and the Australian’s Christopher Pearson was his useful idiot.
In the parallel universe occupied by the Howard ideologues, a contract of appointment that is performance-based is not a true individual workplace agreement. In their view, the real McCoy is a contract existing in a centralised, bureaucratised structure set up by the government and remaining under its control, thus being consecrated by it. Eerily, it is reminiscent of union collective structures: it’s the flip-side, as if one generates the other in the blind passion of reactionary policy. It is against individualism and individual freedom.
The historical dance in Australia between right-wing idealism and left-wing idealism goes on.
The neoclassical ideologues in Howard’s government are reacting to their fear of “collectivity”, probably “communism” too, as driving forces of market inefficiency. But in their industrial policy, they create their own inefficiencies, and anti-individual structures.
To a limited extent, their fears are justified: collective urges are rampant in Australia, and can easily be manipulated to turn into a runaway train, as different sides of a debate become entrenched in their parallel universes, so that not even the basis in reality of the debate can be agreed upon — let alone what would constitute a favourable outcome for most parties.
The latter results in refusal to let go: long after decisions are made, and new conditions are entrenched – bringing the dawn of a new reality – parties refuse to accept the change and harp on about their lost Utopia and the imposed reality that can only be grim in the light of that delusory perfection.
The new ground for Australian universities has been defined. The situation in academia – the morale, the workloads, the dramatically fallen quality of courses – is still catastrophic and a disgrace to a nation that purports to be an advanced society. But at least now we know that the situation will pick up in 4-5 years, and that the slide in Australian universities has probably bottomed out.
The title of this piece – “Community is not Communism” – is my invention, my words, not those of the person I interviewed: Professor Deryck Schreuder, outgoing president of the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee. The interview appears below.
In Australia, the notion that universities can be at the centre of a community is viewed as idealism; yet in the United States, it’s commonplace. This points to a major difference between the two societies. Americans can bury their differences and unite behind a vision for the good of their community or, on a larger scale, their country. In Australia, differences fester and become irreconcilable. At the moment, we’re a smaller country, a smaller people. Maybe we can grow.
Can endowments ever play an essential role in the funding of Australian universities? Australian society faces a test over the next ten years: unite behind a vision, overcome your cynical egalitarianism, pick a winner and stick to it. Virtually every OECD country other than Australia sees the knowledge economy, driven by higher education, as a winner, and has put in place programs to nurture it.
Don’t leave funding to “somebody else” – namely, governments and student fees. Embrace your universities and help make them better by supporting them financially.
Certainly (Mark Latham and ALP policy-makers take note!), the tax system has an essential – but by no means the only – role to play in this.
Endowments and the university as a community are two of the main threads that arose in the interview.
After transcribing the interview, I sent a number of comments and further questions, mostly requesting clarification, to Professor Schreuder. I asked for his reaction. He did not reply. This is probably natural, given the length of the transcript, and the lack of time — as well as political sensitivities due to his involvement in negotiations with the government.
Some of my questions were subsequently answered in public press releases, media reports etc. Others remain unanswered and my objections stand. My post-interview comments or questions are in square brackets (), or appear in the footnotes. Professor Schreuder, or anybody else, is of course free to respond to Webdiary.
Interview with Professor Deryck Schreuder, outgoing president of the AVCC
JW: I’m interested in the big picture…
JW: …I’m interested in the historical view, although I’m well aware of the problems with trying to understand the times that one is part of.
Question 1 – is there method in the madness?
The Australian higher education system has undergone great upheaval in the last decade. The Dawkins reforms of the early 1990s paved the way for an enormous increase in Australian participation in higher education, while introducing the principle of user pays as a means of funding the system. Then in 1996, the Howard government drastically reduced funding to universities: between 1995 and 2000, Australia’s public investment in universities declined by 11 percent(more than any other country in the OECD.) Staff numbers and other indicators still haven’t fully recovered from the shock. Was there method in the madness of 1996?
DS: Well, John, I’ll take a leaf out of your book and say that in addressing this we do need that longer perspective, that the best part of Dawkins, and I vividly recall when it came in, I was part of the Australian Research Council at that stage as well as being a professor, and then I came into the system as a vice-chancellor from the middle nineties.
The best part of it was the access, the opening up of the system to a much wider range of Australians, and the recognition that education, knowledge and skilling would really be extraordinarily important for the future. And it was part of that remarkable Hawke-Keating government which brought in the modernisation of the economy, new public policy, micro reform. I think that really was a key time, a watershed time, in our country. Prior to that we’d had a relatively elite system, small number of universities and about a quarter of a million Australians went to university.
JW: What’s the participation rate now?
DS: Well, we’ve doubled the number. We’re at about 540 thousand domestic students, funded places, and we have about 170 thousand international students studying with us – about 130-140 thousand onshore, the rest offshore. So we’ve seen this remarkable growth in both internal participation and also in the overseas students. And the participation has also been particularly commendable if you look at the shape and character of it. It’s not just been a school-leaver participation. That’s been there, and that’s grown, and I think it’s grown in terms of wider social classes, wider regions participating. So that’s all good. But also more mature age people have come back in as a kind of lifelong learning area, and there’s been striking increases in the number of people coming back for masters degrees.
So the Australian community has come to recognise education as opportunity, and I think that’s a big turn-around in our view. University’s not just for toffs, university’s for all of us.
I think that’s something that’s really crucial and it will be vital in the future and we need to continue to support and nurture that.
We reckon that of the school-leaving population, something like 45% of those completing high-school successfully are going on to university. But it still means that less than 20% of Australians have a degree – because of the number of people who don’t complete high school, or previous [statistical] cohorts in the elite days that didn’t get there.
So we need to lift – still need to lift further the access to the universities. And the vice chancellors have recommended in their own submission to ‘Crossroads’ that we should be setting a target of about 60%, which would then bring us into alignment with some of the other major developed economies, societies of the world.
So access is really, really important. I think we also, in diversifying that, we also diversified the teaching methodology. We’ve brought the new technologies in. The campuses have become more multicultural. There are new ways of connecting the universities to the community.
And then on the research side, we’ve seen a remarkable growth: the [Australian] Research Council, the money in the block grant, all of it strong signs that the system has grown in ways I think are even beyond what John Dawkins’s best vision might have been. (John Dawkins is a graduate of our university, so we all take some pride in that.)
I think where it went wrong – and where your questions are heading to – is that what we’ve got is a lag in funding in relationship to both teaching and learning and research. [See Footnote 1.]
And we’ve never got out of that. We created a system and we never fully funded the expansion. And so that’s been a consistent problem right throughout. So from the time when we began to make the big, mass system, in the early nineties, even then you could see, with the new monies, the new places, the new capital works, it was still not on the levels which would have been appropriate for the scale of the expansion. [See Footnote 2.]
To some degree the success ran away from the government, too. The response of the community was so strong, the new universities got going so strongly. The mature age came in, the flexible delivery, the distance learning, all these things which weren’t anticipated. Plus the international program – it was not in the John Dawkins paper. That’s all been part of the transformation.
So that’s the first negative. The resourcing of teaching and learning. Coupled with it is the fact that the resourcing of research has also lagged. The base grant, the block grant we get for research has never kept up sufficiently for us to provide the kind of infrastructure and flexibility we want…
But the world has moved on as well. So you’ll find that as a proportion of GDP expenditure on basic teaching and learning, we’re average or below average in the OECD; in research, we’re average or below average; in R&D, we’re right down towards the bottom.
So the resources have not kept up with the dream and the vision. There’s nothing wrong with the dream and the vision, it’s absolutely right. We just haven’t invested enough in it.
But that’s just one part of it. And shortly, the other part of it that I feel is a real concern is that, as the system has grown – and of course we have had more public commitment of monies, and that’s right. This is fundamentally a public system for a public good…
JW: We’ve had more commitment for money, but most of it’s coming at the end of the decade…
DS: That’s right.
And alongside that we’ve had more and more red tape, if you will, more and more [pressure for] compliance, more and more regulation, more and more intervention, as the government has become more and more interventionist in determining what it sees are the [desirable] outcomes.
JW: But surely since the government provides so much funding, it has a right to expect that it can impose its policies.
DS: Absolutely, John, absolutely. You’re dead right, and we must always be accountable for the money. We must also be accountable for the specific outcomes where particular programs are put in. And in research and development we need to clearly give an account to not just the parliament, but the Australian community as to why this amount of money put into higher education and into our research is appropriately allocated, when health is in need, social services and our defence.
Yes, we’ve got to be always accountable, and to the community we must always be saying – very clearly communicating – what the universities are about. And we need to particularly give a sense of why, world-wide, universities have become the centre of the building of new knowledge economies.
The great American educationist, Frank Rhodes, who was for years the head of Cornell [University] has written a wonderful book on modern universities, and he’s called it, “The Creation of the Future”.
Yes, we must have accountability, but the theme I’d go back to – it’s a soap-box of mine – is, I believe, you need a balance between the accountabilities, which must be absolutely appropriate… and we’re accountable at the state level as well, to the auditors general, as well as to the commonwealth.
You must also recognize the autonomy of the institutions, *and* recognize the fact that these… Australian higher education has shown itself to be remarkably entrepreneurial, very creative in the new technologies we’ve adopted.
The new teaching methods we’ve brought in. The way we’ve developed mixed mode and distance education. The way we’ve in fact built this enormous industry, which is Australian international university exports. And our little company that we’ve started – IDP – has become this enormous success as an agency.
So there’s every sign that the system responds within a frame of accountability. It responds to policy that is flexible, and that allows a kind of bottom up capacity to drive the system.
JW: Will the federal government always be part of the higher education system? Is it a realistic goal that universities will be totally independent of federal funding in Australia?
DS: That might happen in the long term. I don’t think it’ll happen in my lifetime.
But what I do think has happened, and which has not been recognized fully by the community, and certainly not by the governments enough, of all sides, both parties, both major parties, is the degree to which our universities have become hybrids in terms of the funding of the institutions.
On average, only about 50% of the funding comes in a block form to the universities. And many universities are now down to 40, even 30 – my university, along with a few others, we get less than 30% of our block funding – that is, the student place money, from the government. We earn 70% of it in competitive grants, in fees and charges, in monies from industry, and in monies we raise through endowments, or the alumni. About 5 big income streams.
So increasingly, the universities are becoming autonomous agents. And we’re not just agents of the State. We’re about public good. But we’re on mixed resourcing. And somehow we need to convey that to the community and to government.
That’s why we need to be trusted more.
That’s why we need to be given more flexible frameworks.
And we need to have that flexibility so that we produce the diverse types of university that a modern society needs.
You don’t want ‘University Australia’, which is a single model, stamped out like a cookie cutter, run by the federal ministry…
JW: … a centralised bureaucracy…
DS: That’s exactly what we don’t want. And some people say – and I don’t say this ideologically – that if you want to go for mediocrity, you get government to run everything.
I just believe that in our sector, we need to respect the autonomy of the institutions, and have a match between this and public responsibility/accountability… *but* recognising the capacity of the universities to work to different missions. We’ve got 38 universities in the AVCC, 39 universities in Australia. Each one of them is subtly different from the others.
There is certainly a range of types – five or six types of universities, if you can compare us to Europe or the United States. And we should glory in that. We shouldn’t say that this is a hierarchy of the good ones, the less good ones.
We should be saying all 38 universities should be top quality, but with different kinds of missions.
And help them. Fund them appropriately, and recognise that they themselves will also build their budgets. But help them to build from the bottom up. And then they will create the remaining resources.
[JW: Putting it in a nutshell, you’re arguing that university autonomy leads to a public good because it enables a diversity of universities to evolve organically, backed by a spirit of entrepreneurship, a sort of capitalism from below, within a framework of accountability to the general community. Once the organic process is kick-started through appropriate funding and whatever else, it will carry on by itself in a way appropriate for each university. The benefits of better universities then flow on to the country as a whole.]
JW: I’d like to move on to my next theme.
Question 2. Who will think of those that fall by the wayside?
Some disciplines do not have immediate economic value. Examples include elementary particle physics, or classics, music,…
DS: Or languages.
DS: I think you’re right. It’s both the generic sciences and the generic arts.
Thank you for that, because I think it connects exactly to what we were talking about before. If you get a diverse range of institutions, then you have the opportunity to ensure that you do get the full spectrum of research, say, right across the country.
And then in teaching and learning, I’d say two things. One is, I think some of the comprehensive, traditional universities, such as mine, I do think we have a public responsibility to, in effect, cross-subsidise. And that’s exactly what we do.
And there are many universities in Australia that do exactly that. So that we’re keeping alive fundamental chemistry, as well as fundamental languages.
And we don’t expect in those areas the entrepreneurial capacity, the return, in overseas students, in industry links, in sponsorships. But we bring the money into the totality of the corporate body, which is the university, and we work to an academic profile.
That’s exactly what this university has, and a whole number of other universities do this. But we also have universities that are now more specialised in their approach, and it’s unreasonable to expect all the universities of this country to run – as we do – not only basic chemistry, but also ancient and classical studies. The whole range of languages. No university can run that sufficiently. So that’s a second point.
A third one is that most of our universities, the majority, are in metropolitan centres, because we’re a city-state country.
In Perth, we have 5 universities; other cities have a similar number, either in the metropolitan area or just outside it. Now there you’ve got a real chance of bringing of complementarity, whether it’s in things like languages, or honours programs, or some of the graduate programs. I’m certain we could do more, in that collaborative way.
But that does need recognition by the universities that they have that responsibility, and I think that’s there. And government needs to come to us with the kind of responsible money that assists collaboration in both teaching and research.
We’re increasingly sharing big teaching, big research facilities. Even on a state basis. And I think now there’s a real chance we’ll bring more collaboration into being between universities, CSIRO, other research agencies. And on the teaching front – teaching and learning front – I think there needs to be more of a series of linkages and collaborations.
Because we don’t want to have situation where our country, investing more and more into the universities, in fact comes to the end of the day, and you have a series of universities more or less offering the same, while languages, and some key areas of the sciences, say, actually disappear.
Because there’s no guarantee that any one area will automatically be kept alive. So the AVCC, in its own submission to Crossroads, stressed the importance of this diversity, of institutions, of teaching and learning, of research areas, and we made that one of the major goals of the sector in its responsible work for the community. Because in the end, we’re about serving the society.
JW: So you’re saying that there’s not enough money in Australia to have comprehensive universities teaching, say, fundamental chemistry, elementary particle physics and something like the classics, in every capital city.
DS: No, I think we can do it on that basis, but I don’t think every university can do it.
I think some people have got, in a sense, traditional views of what a university must be. I’ve heard people say, ‘you cannot have a university unless it’s got a philosophy department’. Now, I respect that kind of view, and in my kind of comprehensive university, that is so. It would be inconceivable that my university would not be pursuing philosophy, or basic chemistry or basic physics. That is part of the character of this university.
But each university needs to decide its own academic profile. And then there needs to be the collaborations to ensure that in a big, diverse, regionalised country [such as ours], there is access for students, and there’s access for the society, for all the major research areas, and all the major teaching and learning areas, to be reproduced within a region.
But where you do come down to a very small area of research which might be important but we can only sustain one of them, we should still sustain that in the country.
If a certain language is only offered at one institution, it is still important that we keep that language alive at a time when we’re internationalising in the world.
There should be [at least] one place in Australia where you can go and learn a major language of a neighbour. We shouldn’t allow them to, sort of, drop off every tree, and then we say at the end of the day, “Oh dear, where is Hindi?” “Where is Dutch?” Two languages which have been under threat in recent times.
I think it’s a matter of getting a bit more of a national approach into that. We need to play our part. But government needs to come at us as well and assist and facilitate that process. With the new technologies, you can actually teach a language out of one provider.
JW: What exactly is the mechanism that exists to stop these important, small subjects [i.e. departments] from disappearing? For example, at this university, there’s the �disciplinary group� of classics, ancient history and classical archaeology has 4.3 staff supervising 10 honours students and 12 postgrads, and is teaching undergraduate and postgraduate courses for over 200 students. That’s a staff-student ratio of over 50-to-1. The guy there, Professor Bosworth, says: “I think we�re at the absolute minimum, I think, really, on any rational basis, below the absolute minimum for covering the courses that we do. I think if we lose any more, we�re gone. It�s the old� quoting the poem� �They wouldn�t hurt a hair of us, they�d only let us die.�”
It seems to me that nobody is taking the active role. Somewhere there’s a link broken – or, almost. Nobody is taking the active role to say, “Look, there’s something we want to keep, put some money into there. Help that discipline out.”
DS: Two things I’d say about that. One, you know, naturally, Brian is a great scholar, and we really respect it. This university has the second lowest teaching ratios in the country.
JW: What’s the average, approximately?
DS: We’re at about 16 [to one].
The second point to be made is that we have actually kept alive Classics, as others have not. And the plan through the Faculty of Arts is to ensure that that is there and it grows over the years. So, sure, there are problems in load, and there are pressures, but our arts faculty is the best resourced arts faculty in Australia.
And we have a very high proportion of resources that we put into the library, in terms of the system.
I respect the fact that colleagues feel those pressures, and I understand them all, but we have – it is there, and you can talk to our chemists, it’s there too, the pressure’s on them, those generic areas. [But] we do cross-subsidise, that’s the really important thing. Who keeps…
JW: At what level does that decision-making happen?
DS: It happens at the level of the management group, the executive of the university. Because we have a budget that responds to student demand. We’ve got to do that.
We’ve also got to ensure reasonable equality in the way we distribute staffing load, resourcing, infrastructure. So it comes up through the deans, it’s part of the total load.
Who’s responsible? The vice-chancellor’s senior executive members are responsible, but so too are those in the professions. I’m a historian, I’m a member of the Historical Association, I’m a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities: those are all very important professional pressure groups, which should be there constantly active on behalf of their disciplines or their areas. That’s how you keep it alive.
It doesn’t happen because the State just plans it. We need to get that sort of idea out of our minds.
JW: Question 3. Conditions in academia versus conditions in university administration.
Now, working conditions are not bad in all areas at university. On the contrary: no employee in a university’s administration has to put up with such job insecurity or such a workload, as the average academic does. And in many cases (especially compared to casual academic staff), the administration employee is better paid. Indeed, since 1996, while most academic departments have been relentlessly trimmed, management and administration at each university have been fattened generously. While academic departments such as classics, philosophy and the pure sciences have suffered greatly, and…
DS: I think you’ve got one set of data which is different from my perspective, and after this interview, what I’ll do is ensure we get you the data.
Our administration has not grown like that, we have done major staff work-experience surveys – we’ve done three in the time I’ve been here – and they show a high degree of satisfaction on both sides, the academic and general staff.
[JW: I’m keen to see the data and the survey questions. But I have not seen them yet.]
Recognising that the whole sector is under pressure, we monitor very closely the question of the growth of the professional side compared to the other. We’re very concerned about growth in casualisation. Our university is right at the bottom end of that.
We are particularly concerned with our research-only staff, to ensure they have continuity of employment. And we’ve brought in a number of innovative practices into being. Because in the end, we want to be model employers. We want staff to feel that UWA is a great place to work. And people with that spirit, of course, then perform remarkably well.
They give to the corporate life of the institution, whether they’re teachers, or they’re the professionals, and you produce a first class institution. You want to attract the best staff, you want to develop the best staff, and you want to retain the best staff.
And, John, we’ll give you the data on that which actually shows how this is a very active area with us. And we’ll also show you, with the budget models, how we very carefully adjust budget to both demand and also the academic profile of the university.
We run a whole series of areas which are, in effect, considerable loss leaders to us. But we think that that is the sort of university we’re about.
We’ve got an academic profile, and we actually fund it. This university has initiative monies for new capacity. We have a very flexible series of policies to reward excellence. Loadings, and we have accelerated promotion.
We have a whole series of support mechanisms to ensure that people in our university feel that there’s always an opportunity, a new professional skill that they can acquire to advance themselves.
So – we’re not a very big institution, about three and a half thousand staff. So we feel we actually know our employees. And we have very nuanced policies.
I might sound defensive but I believe we actually can sing a song which is about a workplace where there’s real concern for the conditions, for career opportunities and security.
JW: The fact is, according to the UWA budget – which is published on the internet – the expenditure on “administration” and “student services” together doubled between 1996 and 2000, and have increased further in the two years since then.
DS: But then the balancing side to that is, what are we doing for the faculties, which we don’t do in a devolved way. We devolve certain kinds of academic activities, but we’re a relatively small university. What we can do is put some of that money into some of those faculties, but then what we’ll do is reproduce little administrations all around.
We’ve very carefully delineated the balance between the things we’ve devolved, such as recruitment, the questions of student processing, looking after the overseas students, the research office, providing the IT structure, the support system in the library.
All that is wrapped up in the corporate budget, and that is all put out through the faculties, through the deans. There isn’t a separation in that way. The institution is a matrix, web-like organisation. And we look at what the services are and where they’re delivered.
It’s not reasonable, actually, to pull out what appears to be the central budget as against the faculty budgets, because the faculties are the centre as well. We have a very flat management system in the university.
And the budgeting is done in an absolutely transparent way. We report the budgets to the academic board; we have a planning and budget committee, which consists of all the faculties and representatives from the centres.
I believe we have a good and open way of talking about the research priorities in the university, so people know where we’re putting the money. Those budgets are university budgets, they’re not my budget or the central budget.
JW: OK. I’d like to get onto the next theme.
Question 4. If there is a university crisis now, why is the money promised in the Nelson report only coming towards the end of this decade?
Quite a bit of money has been promised in the Nelson report. Most of this is due to come at about 2007.
DS: It clicks in in 2005, and it’s a 5 year program. We support that approach. Indeed, it was a central part of the proposal we made in the Crossroads review, because we recognized that we do need to have substantial uplift in public commitment of resourcing. And you can’t do it out of one budget. So we have stressed the importance, in teaching and learning, and in research, of having a package.
So the 1.6 billion is spread over a period of time. And the changes are to be brought in over a period of time. And then we’ve argued for a 10-20 year horizon, so there isn’t just one block of money put in to fill a black hole, or fix the thing — that’s not the way. We need, as you’ve indicated, to restore the levels of financing, and we need to have them substantially lifted if we want to be internationally competitive, about 2% of GDP.
We’re only at 1.4, and that includes the student contribution. The Canadians are now putting in about 2.2, and the Americans are already at about 2. We’re talking of getting to that figure over a period of a decade. But that’s because we’re trying to be realistic. We recognise the fact that there are many many calls on the Commonwealth budget.
We’ve also called on the states to play a larger role. We know they’re not first-hand responsible for higher ed. But in a number of areas – whether research and infrastructure, or international programs — the states could play a larger role.
We need a larger commitment over a period of time. The ALP’s “Aim Higher” has picked up that theme as well. We’re delighted. And they have talked about a substantial budget increase, which would pan out over 5 years, with extensions later.
We need to get the notion accepted in our country that each year we actually lift the level of resourcing of higher ed, not say, “We’ve got it right [, so we might as well stop there]”. Because the demands, the international levels, will keep on going up. We seem to accept it in defence. About 1.9% of GDP goes into defence. And it’s constantly adjusted.
In the end, universities – and education – is one of the great defences for the nation. Thomas Jefferson talked about education as the “first defence of the nation”. And that’s the sort of philosophy we need to get into the public funding of universities, but also TAFE and the schools.
JW: Question 5. We seem to be heading towards a higher education system that resembles the American public university system (*not* Harvard etc., which are private universities). But endowments in Australia are almost nonexistent, at least relative to the US. What hope is there that we can emulate the success of the Americans, when a significant component of their success is missing here? If I may continue a bit: There seems to be one great contrast with the United States. And that is the role of endowments in the American system. There are two aspects to this. First, a lot of endowments in the US are absolutely enormous. Second, they come with no strings attached.
DS: Well you could say a couple of things about that. One is that there’s often a view that Australians have harder hearts.
I think the Americans have better tax laws. I think there’s a strong sign that we do have a culture of philanthropy, that’s focussed in certain disciplines, certain cities. So it’s not a void.
And we’ve also seen in recent times that graduates are prepared to come in to assist. A number of universities, including mine, are now beginning to make a considerable advance in a program of [inaudible]. And they don’t uniformly have these large endowments. If you look at it, it’s really concentrated at the top end. The “Chronical of Higher Ed” has had a number of articles recently showing that the real considerable money [i.e. endowments in the US] is in the top 100. And after that it really runs out.
And Australian universities would actually get onto the 100 list.
(JW: I think this is still a poor showing by Australian universities – up till now. The situation will improve – just as it did in the US since a generation or so ago, when public universities there went on an endowments drive.
I want to point out that the top 100 list you mention includes all the so-called “Research One” universities in the United States. There are about 50 of them. These universities aspire to be amongst the world leaders in research, in one field or more, and attract the most talented students, the ones that aspire to knowledge, not just to a vocation, or to getting a degree to improve job opportunities of any sort.
Without having seen the figures, I doubt very much that an Australian university would get into the top 50 on this list. We’ve simply been late in catching onto the endowments thing. Has the AVCC done an analysis and compared Australian universities to that list?]
So it’s a matter of us adjusting, of bringing that into being, as part of what I referred to earlier as the hybrid funding system. We need to build a model of diverse funding.
And we need to explain to our graduates, who already think, “We pay taxes, we go to public universities, why do they still want our money? We’re paying HECS, why are they still pursuing us?” – we need to get the idea that being part of a university is a lifetime community experience.
We need to involve them, we need to give more to our alumni, to explain to them what their role can be in the development of their university.
And if you do that – which is how the Americans do it: it’s not just that they get the big corporate dollar, and they do get that, but the majority of their money comes in in large numbers of small scale, but lifetime givers.
Every year people give. Now we are, John, we are learning that. And I think that is part of the engagement of the universities with our society.
And that will grow. That will be an increasing part of the way we operate. And it’s wonderful money to have because, as you say, it’s untied money – or in many cases it’s reasonably untied, it’s in scholarships. Or it’s in certain research areas. Or it’s attached to a certain facility.
But I think it will be there. Just last night we launched a major initiative for fund-raising – costing about $30 million – in the university to put up a new business school structure, which will mean a whole new faculty structure on the campus.
And we’re relatively confident that we’ll raise that from our alumni – we had 30 years of graduates from the business school there last night – and the corporate community. And we feel relatively confident.
We’ve raised a considerable number of [professorial] chairs in the last few years. We’ve had some big donations for scholarships.
[JW: Can you give some concrete examples? Magnitude, and area of the scholarship? Are they really that big? (No reply.)]
We’ve had some significant donations to the library. So it can be done. But it will not easily produce the sorts of moneys that – people tend to quote the top group. I mean, Harvard could join the United Nations. It’s got something like $20 billion. We’re not going to reproduce that in Australia. We should look more at the public universities of America, and we’ll see that we could catch up.
The Stanford president said to me – and they have an endowment of about $12 billion — he said, “Remember, we didn’t always have this endowment. We’ve built it over a generation.”
He was encouraging us to go into it systematically and build those linkages and draw the alumni in.
JW: I’m sure that a systematic approach over a long period would gradually improve the situation. I think of examples like the University of Cincinnatti, which is not a top American university overall, and they have endowment that makes possible an incredible Classics department.
DS: Well we’ve had several million dollars given to us in recent times by an Italian foundation. We have a chair in Italian humanistic studies in the Classics area. That was the result of an initiative of some of our staff and a gift from the Cassamarca Foundation in Italy. So it can happen.
[JW: I should point out that the Cassamarca professorship is devoted to the promotion of Italian studies overseas, and does nothing to alleviate the teaching load – a student-staff ratio of 50-to-1 – in that disciplinary group. I don’t know of any examples in Australia of a comparably large endowment, coming from an Australian source, in a fundamental science (apart from medicine) or humanities area. (I’d like to know it if there is one!) There’s no getting away from the fact that the endowments situation in Australia is abysmal. Perhaps a fairer assessment is that it is in its infancy. See Footnote 3.]
We’ve had people give us scholarships aimed specifically at the social sciences and humanities. So it’s not just medical research.
It takes time. You’ve got to work at it, you’ve got to find your friends in the community, they’ve got to be assured about what you do with the money. They’ve got to feel part of the success story.
That’s where the Americans have been so good. Bringing the graduates back on campus. Keeping them in touch. Having special occasions. Ensuring that every scholarship recipient and chair recipient writes to the donors, keeps them involved.
We need to do more. And then I believe – well, we’re seeing it already – it will happen. Clearly, I agree that it will happen most easily for the older universities.
…JW: Do you see a gulf emerging in Australia between the sandstone universities and the rest?
DS: Well they’re different anyway. What’s absolutely crucial in the changes being promoted now is that differences be preserved in terms of style, approach and what is being offered, but that there be reasonable resource-basing for all the universities.
That’s been the AVCC’s policy. And we’ve outlined it in very great detail in “Forward from the Crossroads”, in “Access and Equity”, the response to the government document, and now in a document we’re about to publish in response to the ALP’s proposals.
We have suggested ways in which you come to produce a diverse sector, where you lift the base – and there’s a quality base for all institutions – and then you provide resourcing which reflects fitness for purpose and performance.
And if you could do that then we’d have a very good, strong diverse public sector. [Do you mean public higher education system?]
But it does begin with a reasonable base. We do need to restore the resources that are absent, and we need to keep building on them year in and year out.
JW: Professor Schreuder, thank you very much.
DS: My pleasure. You’ve stirred me on a number of [pet issues of mine].
JW: The main problem is surely the *lack* of funding, not the various kinds of lag that exist.
One example of lag is the following. When a research group in a department or school gets funding, a portion of it is likely to be earmarked for infrastructure for the department or school as a whole. However, the benefits of an infrastructure levy earmarked in 2003 will only arrive in 2005 (50%) and 2006. There’s a time lag of 3 years! Moreover, some types of research funding do not result in any benefit to a school.
We have situation in universities at the moment where individual research groups get up to millions in funding, while the infrastructure (lab equipment etc.) in the schools themselves is old and not maintained to a proper standard.
JW: I don’t think my question has been answered. The system may well have not been properly funded from the outset; nevertheless, undeniably there’s a significant difference in, for example, money available for teaching in the pre-1996 period and post-1996 period.
I believe a fair and normal example to illustrate this is the following. In 1996 (before effects of the 1996 fiscal shock flowed through), the teaching of a particular very large first-year course at a certain Group of Eight university typically involved a lecturer and 18 tutors, with tutorials being held every week for two semesters. In 1999, tutorials in this course were cut back to only one semester – this is still the case – and the number of tutors (and tutorial groups) was halved, while student numbers rose (with a concomitant doubling of the student-staff ratio in tutorials). In some other units of this subject, tutorials were cancelled altogether. The cutbacks were due to lack of money. This was even after many staff had been purged to cut costs.
If I may just harp on about this a little – it’s really about the difference between one’s experiences and observations and what people in some quarters have been claiming about the quality of education in Australia. It seems to me that it just isn’t possible to claim – not that you are! – that the standard of that particular course I mentioned above – without the tutorials that are absolutely necessary to communicate the subject properly – is as high now as it was in 1996. It is certainly not “world’s best practice”, as some would claim. This is just an advertising pitch to attract overseas students. It is still a good course — possibly better than the overseas student would get in their own country – but it isn’t as good as it could be. Of course, with more funding, the situation will certainly improve.
This sort of thing seems to be partly what Ian Macfarlane, of the Reserve Bank of Australia, was referring to earlier this year when he said:
“The Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne University made the assessment that Australia no longer has a university ranking in the world’s top 100. I have no reason to dispute his opinion as I have heard similar views from other academics. It is imperative for all involved in higher education � governments, bureaucrats, academics and their spokespersons, taxpayers and businesses � to tackle this assessment. It may elicit the old catch cry of ‘elitism’; but far better that than a complacency permitting higher education to slip further.”
What I’m saying is this (and I’m not denying what you said, as there may well be two effects occurring simultaneously): the budgetary shock of 1996 was significant, actually, a catastrophe.
I am still no closer to understanding the method in that madness.
I can only speculate. Perhaps the government thought that university departments were becoming too bloated, too wasteful – but in blindly attacking the entire higher ed sector as a bloc, it has had the effect of weakening departments that should be part of the backbone of any comprehensive university, given the economic importance of knowledge in the world these days, as shown by a number of economies, such as the United States, Ireland and South Korea.
Whatever it was that the government had in mind, it has damaged the Australian university system immensely. The fact that some positive results have occurred despite the blow of 1996 does not change this.
Now, all that is largely in the past, and we are in the process of recovering from that. We need to have plans in place for the future – and that’s exactly what groups like the AVCC have. The Nelson plan is a start.
But that past has direct relevance today, for the people who put that excessive policy in place are still among the people you are dealing with now.
I think Brendan Nelson, to his credit, has recognised the problems in the higher education in Australia, and, moreover, has put his plan together despite those people; he isn’t one of them. They have stamped their influence on his plan.
I think this excessiveness is a strong streak in the present federal government – this is its principle weakness. There are people in it – possibly a minority – who don’t believe, as you do, in building a community from the ground level up.
They don’t believe in it even if this construction is complemented, as it has to be, by a top-down process. They are repelled by the idea of – if I may put it this concise way – capitalism from the ground up.
Granted, they certainly have ideas on how the economy should be run, the structures that should be in place to “guarantee freedom”.
But their priorities are different. They confound the nurturing of low-level connections in a community for something that horrifies them. Without the community-building, the low-level view, their policies are guaranteed to be a blunt instrument. We have seen what this blunt instrument did to the Australian higher education system after 1996.
The Liberal Party has lost several elections, both at state and federal level, largely, I believe, because they haven’t recognised this flaw within itself. They’ve caused their own downfall in this way.
In both Britain (Labor Party) and Australia (Liberal Party), the higher ed system – and the society – is evolving towards facilitating individuals to get ahead according to merit: a case of, essentially, every man for himself. But it’s complemented by something essential for the healthy functioning of the community or society: later, or even on the way up, the individual chooses as an independent thinker to give something back to the community that brought him success.
It seems to me that when the elements I mentioned above in the present government observe this process – of community-building, which is carried out by people who know a lot more than they do, who have spent much more time in the system and know it thoroughly – they see the demons of “collective thinking”, cosy communitarianism, or worse; and their instinct is to smash what they see.
Their evangelism has no hope of success, because it is not grounded in the reality of what a university has to be to function. This cannot happen in an environment where the daily struggle for survival of the fittest saps creativity. They impress us with their futility, the destructiveness of their evangelism.
This is, of course, the problem. But we have to focus on solutions. The solution comes with groups like the AVCC convincing those elements that responsible people run universities, and that more trust should be placed in them.
You may or may not wish to comment on the above. [No comment received.]
JW: As I said, I tend to agree with you that the general endowments situation in Australia will improve following a systematic attempt to get the ball rolling, as the Stanford president suggested. However, for the really big endowments to come, I think Australian culture will have to change. Or, as you said, the tax laws can make it more attractive to make endowments.
But could it really be something about our present character, after all? At least, what do we have to overcome to achieve higher goals? It seems to me that a deep utilitarian streak runs through Australian society. All too often, gift-giving comes with strings attached. Witness the criticism a month or so ago of outgoing Communication Minister Alston’s suggestion for funding the ABC by subscription. The criticism is probably right: big corporate donors will probably insist on conditions, and the ABC will lose its independence.
Americans are overall more idealistic than Australians. They pump billions into (economically-speaking) “useless” things like the Hubble Space Telescope and particle accelerators and supersymmetric superstring theory. Better tax laws are only part of it: there’s much more money to be made in, say, property than in giving money away to Classics departments as a tax break.
What could be the explanation for this difference between Australians and Americans? Perhaps it’s a kind of envy, or fear, in Australia – fear that if you let your guard down and give something away unconditionally, somebody else will make a profit out of it, and you will lose out – in some sort of imaginary race – or somebody else will be given a free kick when they haven’t earned it. Why should I give somebody else a free kick when I worked bloody hard for what I have?
Perhaps it’s a “superfluity” deficiency. Superfluity is the idea of always having something to spare, so that if the opportunity comes for giving unconditionally, it’s easy to do it. It’s even a pleasure. Of course it exists here, but nothing like as strongly as in societies where hospitality, for example, is a passion, even for poor people. It comes with no strings attached.
Having said that, however, witness the enormous success of Telethons and Appealathons in Australia – per capita, Australians are the most generous in the world. Why this, and not the other? Here, the cause is young children who will get the chance to live a normal life. They’re innocent. Their predicament is nothing to do with anything they chose to do in their lives – they were simply born with disabilities. We gladly, wholeheartedly, give money to people we imagine are innocent, but not to those with ambitions, who have tainted consciences. This is our puritanism.
As soon as debate moves onto more money for universities, the rhetoric becomes sectarian. This is partly driven by awareness of limited resources – and certainly by indecision about national priorities. Therefore, unlike in other OECD countries, whenever a solution overtly favours one section of society over another, it is put down.
A typical attitude is: “There is something almost touching about the naivety of a bloated academic salariat that takes its own services – and their withdrawal – so much more seriously than anyone else could.” [Christopher Pearson, The Australian, Oct. 4-5, 2003.]
I cannot imagine this sort of comment being taken seriously in the US, where the immense benefits of technology and intelligent solutions are taken as a given. In Australia we have absolute egalitarianism: it is as damaging as any absolute. This attitude contends that we’re not allowed to pick winners – even though virtually every other OECD country sees the knowledge economy, driven by higher education, as a winner, and has put in place programs to nurture it.
In my interview with Professor James Gates (coming soon to Webdiary – James Gates is the founding father of a major area of physics), I sensed an astounding difference in attitude towards higher education in the US and in Australia.
Australia has to change. Big business and ordinary individuals need to decide that there is a winner: it’s higher ed.
Individual Australians – the general public, on a grand scale – have to be shown that their contribution can make a difference, on the small scale, the local scale, and that a knowledge-community can be built through their efforts.
I think either the idea to donate doesn’t arise, or when it does, we hesitate. We don’t have a clear picture, or confidence, in what happens with the money. Maybe we’ve been burned in the past by poorly planned schemes or company failures; and in Australia, there have been many. We need to see that machinery has been put in place that will run smoothly and successfully given our input. We need to be given confidence that our money won’t be wasted on frivolity or directors’ salaries.