Aussie Attitudes Killing Our Unis’ Prospects

Aussie attitudes killing our unis’ prospects, vice-chancellor Glyn Davis says.

MELBOURNE University vice-chancellor Glyn Davis has warned that Australia’s egalitarian culture is holding back universities from competing internationally.

Professor Davis said unlike in sport, there was little public demand for having world-class Australian universities.

While the current system of uniform funding rates, in which universities all charged similar fees, had ensured “consistent high quality”, it limited their ability to seek world fame and glory.

“It is an outcome I suspect that suits the national temperament,” Professor Davis told a Grattan Institute talk in Melbourne on Thursday night, which also included the visiting vice-chancellor of Oxford University, Andrew Hamilton.

“It seems less public policy than national temperament that defines the possible. Australians are occasionally proud of their universities, but there is no groundswell of popular opinion demanding world-class universities.

“Where is the anxiety about rankings that you hear in Korea, China and France? Why do we not hear more from successful people, whose education has made possible their careers, calling for greater support for the sector?”

His comments come at a crucial time, when the government is reviewing university teaching funding. The sector is seeking at least a 10 per cent rise to stem the blowout in student-staff ratios to more than 22-1 and support quality as the sector pursues the government’s expansion targets.

Professor Davis had lobbied for partial deregulation of fees to drive diversity and choice by allowing universities to charge above current caps. He said the challenge was to persuade the public and policymakers that equality and diversity could co-exist.

RMIT vice-chancellor Margaret Gardner, Professor Davis’s wife, told the forum Australia’s small scale meant the country needed a world-class system of universities if it were to attract international researchers and the best international students.

Listen up, policymakers — for Australia, it should be a world-class university system, not world-class universities . . . that should be their goal,” she said.

Oxford’s Professor Hamilton told The Weekend Australian sweeping funding cuts and student fee hikes in Britain were evidence the government had lost sight of the public benefits of higher education. “We have seen considerable over-emphasis on the private benefit of higher education and we have lost sight of the immense public benefit that comes from an educated citizenry,” he said.

But Professor Hamilton said in times of policy change, whether in Britain or Australia, it was key that universities focus on excellence.

“There are dangers in transitioning to new funding models, there will be a temptation to cut corners, there will be temptations to try to do things on the cheap, and there is a danger that quality will suffer,” he said.

Oxford is helped by endowments, and a key part of Professor Hamilton’s visit is to tap Australian alumni for donations.

But Oxford’s endowment of about $4.5 billion is dwarfed by that of its US rivals, such as Yale’s, of about $15bn.

Melbourne University, which is among Australia’s richest, has an endowment of $380 million.

Source: Andrew Trounson | July 30, 2011