These days I keep hearing that universities are “all about money.” In the old days when I was a student, universities were accepted as being about an education that broadened minds and discovery-based research.

But recently a student said to me “You’re just working so the owners of the university can get even richer”.

I was surprised. I explained that we were a public not-for-profit institution so revenues went back to our core functions: teaching and research.

Somehow that’s not how it looks to many people today.

Why is this happening?

Paradoxically, it is some of the successes of the Australian system that are exacerbating the problem.

Australian universities are transparently funded by a mixture of tax-payer and user pays fees. Australian students pay part of the cost of their education through income contingent loans and they or their families also pay via taxes. International students and many post-graduate domestic students pay full fees.

The idea that education involves a transaction is now inescapable. Moreover, Australian universities have become so successful in the international “market” that education is repeatedly listed as one of our greatest exports.

Many Australians, who enjoyed a school and university education locally, now see it as a bit weird that universities are a leading export industry. Even though it is really a triumph.

There was another big change since when I was a student. In those days universities were smaller and primarily undergraduate institutions. It felt more personal. Many of us grew up at university and we have very fond memories.

Now there are more students paying fees for important professional undergraduate and masters degrees. The intellectual standards remain high, minds are still broadened, but naturally students consider how much they pay for their degrees and how this will enhance their employment options.

Now some Australian universities have more than 60,000 students. Our universities are huge. In other countries increases in student numbers have led to the establishment of many new universities. But in Australia the public regulatory framework meant it was easier to expand existing universities than create new ones.

I think the increases in scale have had profound effects. As individual university annual budgets have grown into the billions either management has become more corporate, or it has just felt that way. People regard universities as big businesses, when really they are just big!

It’s great we are big. We are delivering more knowledge to more people than ever before. But it does sometimes look like we’ve morphed into a corporate production line.

One last point. As education has grown globally, and more people have a degree, the quality of the degree has become more important. In the old days often just being a graduate was enough. Now the quality of a degree counts more than it once did.

There are many different ways of signalling quality. Institutions work on self-promotion. I try not to be cynical but during my career I have seen rather more claims about being “world class” than can be substantiated. Self-assessment is never completely reliable. Nor are league tables, nor are research assessment exercises.

Crass though it sounds, financial metrics often end up being less contestable than many claims about quality. I hope you won’t be shocked but if you want a quick way to identify the top universities in the world, I’d advise you to just look at how much they spend on teaching and research in various fields. It won’t work for everything – nothing does – but you’ll gather solid evidence because it’s harder to spin up dollars.

I expect that money will continue to be a currency of conversation. We shouldn’t hide it – it’s better that things are out in the open. But there is one thing we can do.

We can talk more about our core purposes – teaching and research. We should be more like the health sector. Money is vital in health care but thinking about money hasn’t taken over because the core purpose has never been in doubt.

We have to focus and avoid expanding the core purpose of universities to beyond what is credible to our critics. We should refocus our contribution squarely around knowledge – its creation and its dissemination. The creation of knowledge by research that addresses finite solvable problems is important and we should explain how this enhances our teaching.

If we emphasise our teaching and the finite research problems we address, it becomes more obvious that we are re-investing in just these things. The concern over all that money, all the talk about it, and what we might want it for, including various politically aligned projects, goes away.

In a way we’re part of the health sector – a great education is arguably the best preventative medicine against the hardships life can throw against us.

Professor Merlin Crossley

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic




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