The Australian Idea of a University

Glyn Davis

Melbourne: MUP, 2017, 170pp

Reviewed by Warren Bebbington

As Glyn Davis prepares to return to the professoriate after 16 distinguished years of university leadership, he has produced a deft and insightful book on Australia’s public universities, their nature and future prospects.  His title may echo Cardinal Newman’s classic, but the Australian idea of a university, as he makes clear, has been an altogether different and rather static concept, “a still point in a turning world.”

For contrary to the cornucopia of institutional types in the US, Australia offers just a single model for the public university.  In the mid 19th century, our first universities were created under British influence. Mimicking the pragmatic goals of London or Edinburgh rather than the idealism of Oxford or Cambridge, they shaping what Davis calls a “metropolitan university” model—publicly owned but self-governing, urban and commuter-based, secular and with merit-based admission, comprehensive but with a strong emphasis on professional training, and later adding research to their teaching mission.

“If we understand history,” says Davis, “we need not be its victims.” With an elegance which masks deep research, he portrays the whole history of Australia’s university development. Sydney and Melbourne began a first wave of university formation, embracing the metropolitan model; a second wave in the 1940s and 50s saw universities like UNE and ANU founded with different ideas in mind, but soon edging towards the earlier model. A third wave in the 1960s saw universities like Macquarie, Latrobe and Murdoch organised around interdisciplinarity, and featuring such novel programs as  Environment, Asia, or Culture; yet these too felt the pull of the archetype, and were drawn inexorably to the same template.

If the standard Carnegie classifications for types of higher education institutions were applied, Davis laments that every Australian public university would fall in a single Carnegie category—the doctoral university.  He asks how, in a nation of separate settlements scattered across an entire continent, a single model came to prevail. His answer is “path dependency,” a concept adapted from economic analysis, which in social scientist Scott Page’s formulation argues that a single unit type becomes increasingly prevalent, partly through habit, but also through self-reinforcement, positive feedback or financial rewards, and regulatory lock-in.

Change to the model proved near impossible, first in the face of academic predilection and student preference, but ultimately through the national imposition of uniformity by reforming Education Minister John Dawkins. After rehearsing the upheavals of the 1980s, Davis offers a quite even-handed assessment of the Dawkins legacy—urgently needed expansion of university places was achieved nationally, financed by a path-breaking income-contingent loan scheme (HECS), but achieved by the elimination the nation’s entire array of small specialist colleges, the legislated imposition on all institutions of substantial size, diminishing of funds-per-student, and the de-emphasising of the teaching mission in favour of a universal research obligation.

Thus a single, traditional model became uniform in all public universities. But “ancient traditions are no guarantee of continued viability”: Davis reminds us of how in the 19th century, the expansion of railroads across the USA created economical national distribution and wiped out whole local industries. Today public universities are challenged by the internet university, in which course content is pared down to merely what is needed to prepare for a job, and the MOOCs, where content is liberated from courses altogether. “Path dependency continues only so long as key variables remain unchanged”, he says, and technological ferment “breaks the constraints that encourage conformity.” In the face of this, the uniform Australian idea of a university, he says “may have run its course.” It is time now for real diversity: under attack from technological disruption and a growing array of for-profit and private providers, much greater institutional diversity will be needed if our public universities are to endure, animated by experiment, innovation and resilience.

Yet he is far from pessimistic about the capacity of the public universities to endure. “For most students, higher education is about knowledge rather than just content, and here context and immersion matter.” He quotes economist Joseph Schumpeter’s observation that creative destruction is not necessarily incessant. Many internet providers have faltered or failed, while some public universities have already acted decisively to address the challenges unfolding. Purdue University in the US has purchased leading internet provider Kaplan University and harnessed its powers to public university ends, while others have spent heavily on new accommodation and facilities designed to entice students away from isolated work on their tablets and back to campus.  Public universities will cope with the challenges, he says, because their work competing for international students has prepared them well for the competitive environment.

But a changed policy environment is also needed, one that allows innovation and rewards difference in our public universities. From Canberra, Davis would like to see a new national policy framework that embraces the entirety of post-school education;  a new fee setting approach that pays much closer attention to actual course cost and ends complex cross-subsidies; a fifth wave of new, specialist public institutions—small, without a research requirement, each dedicated to a specific field of knowledge; and a revived Australian Tertiary Education Commission, akin in its powers to the Hong Kong University Grants Committee, which has achieved a system differentiation unknown in Australia.

It is a compelling case for decisive Federal Government action. But where is the Federal Education Minister with the courage and parliamentary support to act on such a plan? For most of the past decade, neither side of politics has had the stomach for bold change in higher education policy. Canberra urgently needs wise counsel and persuasive advice if a new policy framework is to be formed. Freed from his vice chancellorial duties at the University of Melbourne, there is little doubt Glyn Davis could provide it.

Professor Warren Bebbington was until April Vice Chancellor and President of the University of Adelaide


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