Government budgets have never been tighter, so if we want to be prioritised, now is not the time for modesty or understatement.

So I’ll say it – I’m very proud of the Australian university sector and its practical contributions to society. It’s hard to explain how good it really is, but I’m going to try.

Let me start – heaven forbid – with the latest international league table and I’ll tell you some things I bet you didn’t know.

In this year’s QS rankings – that aggregates scores on things like teaching, research, internationalisation and staff/student ratios – there were five Australian universities in the top 50. Australia is 0.3 per cent of the world’s population but we represent 10 per cent of the top 50 universities. That’s cool.

But that’s not the surprise.

The surprise is that in terms of staff/student ratios most of our leading institutions don’t even sit in the top 600. We are super-efficient. We equip our graduates for the future with fewer staff than our international competitors because we have been learning to be lean for a long time. I don’t think you could argue our teaching is over-funded.

You might think that the quality of the education we provide might suffer a bit due to having so many students per staff member. I don’t think it does. We have embraced technology, we have been innovative in our teaching methods, and despite what some people think we – both students and staff – work pretty hard.

Beyond that I have a few bits of anecdotal evidence that we are doing OK and have been for a while.

I did my undergraduate degree in Melbourne and then went to England for my doctorate. I was expecting that I would struggle compared to my peers there. So imagine my genuine surprise when first I found I had been well prepared by my training, and more than that I found other Australians excelling everywhere. The head of my department was Australian, I had many fellow students who were Australian, and everyone there seemed to value our approach and respect our universities – perhaps more than we seemed to value them ourselves.

What did people value about Australian students?

It’s hard to ever know how others see you. Australia has not historically presented itself as a global intellectual superpower but a long succession of good Australian students had created a positive impression. Perhaps I was treated a bit like the way a slightly irreverent Scandinavian might be. I felt respected but also a little apart from the local culture. Sometimes I saw myself as being like a Scot – not English, but sturdy, practical, and somehow unknowable, but worthy of respect.

People overseas seemed to like the breadth Australians got in high school – we study five or more subjects, rather than three. They recognised the depth of our degrees and the year long research project we do in honours. And they admired the sort of hands on practicality we had.

Later, I went to America and it was the same. There were Australians there too and they were holding their own and shining – even before Crocodile Dundee, and I was no Crocodile Dundee. One of my old friends had told me that Australians abroad are regarded as harmless buffoons, but I feel we have moved past that now.

This was all more than 30 years ago but things have only got better. This year my institution recruited back an international star biomedical researcher, whom I taught here when he was an undergraduate. He shone at Harvard and will now shine here. And we’re still sending top students. My recent PhD graduates have or are going to positions in Oxford, Berkeley, Michigan, and Stanford. They will do us proud.

You can start here and go anywhere because our system is good – or was good.

We’ve just been hit by a very sudden drop in revenue due to COVID-19 and I worry our system will falter if there is no systematic support.

I hoped the Government – which should also be proud of us – would help and they guaranteed the funding for teaching that they already had in the budget. Yes. That was the extent of our rescue package. Some people are surprised by that detail.

And the Government announced Job Keeper and it looked like universities  were eligible and that like charities, needed to  show a modest revenue reduction.

Then the rules changed so that no university has received funds. I am still not sure why we were kept out of Job Keeper.

Then, realising that there was strong demand for student places next year, the Government has now announced that they will scale-up to make 40,000 new places available by 2023. This will be delivered, not by new investment in the sector, but by having universities teach more students for the same amount, i.e. less funding per student.

To make university more accessible the fees for many students have been cut. That sounds good.

But they’ve cut the fees for science, engineering and agriculture students. What this means is that those university departments will now receive less funding.

At the same time there has been an increase in fees for humanities, social sciences and social work. I deplore that as people with those degrees offer so much to society, and actually many of our politicians trained in those disciplines. But to me the hidden concern is what the fee changes mean for Australia’s capacity in science, engineering and agriculture.

As we enter the Asian century we can be proud of how our universities have kept pace.

In fact, we have done so well that students come from across Asia to study with us and have added much to our culture and our labs, and have returned home with an appreciation for our happy island and its antipodean ways, for our values and our qualities.

We have actually been world leaders in some aspects of education without really being aware of it or celebrating it enough or as much as we should have.

Now we can look to the north and see how Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Shanghai, Beijing, Korea and Japan are about to bounce out of the COVID crisis and will be setting their visions for the future. They have been booming and investing in their universities for several decades now. We can see the productivity and the power – the raw industrial might of Asia rising.

I don’t want Australia to fall behind.

Merlin Crossley

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic, UNSW



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