By CONOR KING
A “translator” is my best word to describe what I have done for much of the past 20 years with the Innovative Research Universities and previously with the then Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee. I help universities understand government; I help government understand universities. Through better understanding of what the other actually thinks and needs the chances of a good outcome are improved – perhaps.
University advocates should reflect who they represent. I don’t think we, all of us across the university system, always succeed.
The arguments we put forward will be self-interested but they should still be credible, take some account of the supporting evidence and avoid gross simplifications that are laughable.
We are not writing research papers but what we produce should resemble the thinking you would expect from people who argue that knowledge matters.
I tend to take the view if I can see a large hole in what we might say then the chances are strong that the person we say it too will see the same hole, if not several others. I prefer to avoid those holes.
Universities and their representatives should build from what they know – how to expand and convey knowledge about the world and ourselves with the intent to use that knowledge to improve all our lives. The public, via the governments they elect, will constrain more or less tightly the resources available and push and nudge in various directions, with good intentions and limited foresight.
Advocacy bodies and the detail of policy
I am sceptical that universities or their advocates ought to devise funding and related systems. University people are as likely to come up with a decent funding system as public servants are to design and deliver good education and research.
Both points matter.
Government funding systems work when they either support the university to do education and research the way the university thinks best or sets out to encourage changed directions by pushing universities to alter specific outcomes.
In neither case ought government get caught up in directing how it should be done. I cringe whenever government programmes head in that direction. It is almost as bad as when senior university administrators attempt to guide education and research.
Education follows the big drivers
We argue endlessly about the detail of university funding and charging. Yet they are essentially peripheral to the social and economic drivers forcing higher and higher levels of education for greater proportions of the population.
The level of education in Australia would be much as it is no matter what funding system had been chosen at different moments over the past 60 years. The drivers are clear, with governments having little capacity to do any other than respond.
The most significant education change in my lifetime was the Hawke government’s decision to double the proportion of school entrants completing year 12 across the 1980s. It brought schooling levels into line with need.
The effect was to lower the individual advantage of a particular level of education, to the collective gain from more people being better prepared. If there was ever a major breaking down of educational exclusionism, that was it.
And did it work to underpin the economic outcomes of the past few decades!
The expansion of post-school education followed on fast. All those people emerging from schools know they need more to have a reasonable chance of a good life. The needs of employment and the expectations of social knowledge keep education levels rising.
This does not stop governments attempting to steer. It just means they are unlikely to succeed.
Peter Mandler’s The Crisis of the Meritocracy: Britain’s Transition to Mass Education Since the Second World War is full of UK governments trying to hold back expansion, encouraging science and technology over the relentless growth in arts and business degrees, and wanting research on real things that deliver.
And yet, as Mandler shows, none of that mattered against the determination of British people to access higher education and in the courses they wanted. It echoes outcomes in Australia, albeit in Australia the major government decisions from Dawkins and Gillard were to encourage expansion.
The 2020s’ population bulge will force further expansion. University advocates will need to show why it is necessary, knowing that whether it wishes to or not government will need to follow.
Conor King is Executive Director of the Innovative Research Universities. He completes his term on July 30