Lunchtime special: Bebbington makes the case for deregulation: it’s not about money to do more of the same

With the fee debate degenerating into speculation of what will Clive Palmer say next the obvious question is being ignored – what would universities do with the extra fees they seek to screw out of students. Beyond blather about excellence nobody is offering any detail, which is why what Warren Bebbington says is important.

The University of Adelaide VC argues what Australia needs from its universities is multiple missions.

In a speech this afternoon he described US colleges that specialise in teaching, like Williams College in Massachusetts, rated first in US News and World Report, although it does not even appear in the Jiao Tong league table. Colleges that focus on engineering or arts, colleges that focus on social justice or international, colleges united above all in providing students with the teaching and support they need to make the most of their abilities. Colleges which focus on four features, they teach in small groups, they require students to live on campus, they are all about learning and they are not obsessed with research.

The way to do this here, he suggests, is to abandon ever more of the same research obsessed uniformity that has shaped the Australian experience since John Dawkins first turned colleges that taught into universities that research. “Whether this was wise was endlessly debated, but it is something that has scarcely changed since. A stultifying sameness descended on the sector, with centralised government regulation of degree types, student numbers, and many other matters,” Bebbington says.

While he is too modest to admit it, Bebbington is adopting some of the elite approach at Uni Adelaide, with a new emphasis on small group teaching. Overall however there are few exceptions to our continental culture of conformity. As he says

“We have no universities who have defined their missions as predominantly—exclusively— facing their local communities, the way the Land Grant universities have in the US, some of which concentrate on publishing their research findings in local media rather than international journals. We have no universities who have chosen to eschew research and focus primarily on first-class undergraduate education. We have none that require the residential education experience of the US colleges. And thus we offer students little of the sheer variety of choice of the US.”

This is a grand vision which Bebbington says, the Pyne plan for deregulation can make possible, although he acknowledges there are problems in getting the settings right.

But his point, that more of the same is what we do not need is well made.

And more of the same is what we will get if universities get – but waste – the opportunity to charge more money.

“I yearn for the day when Australians can choose undergraduate colleges focussed on a particular educational philosophy, or targeting the specific employment needs of its local community, or embracing ethical principles for life, or celebrating our indigenous peoples or serving the needs of a particular disadvantaged group,” Professor Bebbington suggests.

His vision injects imagination into the deregulation debate and it deserves a hearing.

If this all turns out to be about giving universities more money to all do the same maybe it will not matter all that much if Mr Palmer knocks the Pyne plan off.