The Go8 knows nothing about the US university system

I’ve just downloaded the submission of the Group of Eight (the body representing vice-chancellors and presidents of Australia’s leading research universities to the Senate Committee of Inquiry into the government’s higher education reforms. The core of the argument in favour of a shift to a US-style system is as follows

deregulation offers institutions a way of opening doors to the future. In the words of Professor Warren Bebbington, Vice Chancellor of the University of Adelaide

higher education in Australia could be transformed into the most dynamic system in the world. It would have the rich variety of the US university landscape, but without the crippling debts that American students suffer… In the US, nearly half of all students… attend teaching-only undergraduate colleges offering only Bachelor degrees. Without research programmes, these colleges do a first-class job of teaching: through small classes and an intense extra-curricular programme. Students have an unforgettable, utterly life-changing educational experience… [yet] such institutions are scarcely possible in Australia currently.

At a recent national press club address, Professor Ian Young, Vice Chancellor of The Australian National University and chair of the Group of Eight, spoke of a system where students contemplating university were offered a variety of choices, in terms of learning style, or aspirations, of practical skills or exploration of ideas, of social networks or intimate teaching styles, of research-intensive training or immediate vocational outcomes. A system that is well within our grasp if we have the vision to accept a more flexible approach to higher education

This is a truly stunning display of ignorance. The institutions described by Professor Bebbington are what is called in the US “liberal arts colleges”, elite private institutions educating a tiny fraction of the US student population, similar to the Ivy League and charging as much or more. A typical example is Wellesley, alma mater of Hillary Clinton, with 2000 students and annual tuition (including room and board) of $US 59 000 [^1]. The non-research institutions actually attended by nearly half of all US students are second-tier state universities along with a variety of private institution (for-profits like Phoenix, Christian colleges and so on), none of which offer “small classes and an intense extra-curricular programme”. They operate in old and overcrowded buildings relying heavily on overworked and underpaid adjuncts. Some do a great job under conditions of extreme financial stringency: others are disaster areas where the vast majority of students don’t complete their courses. Very few are comparable with even the bottom tier of the Australian public university system: former teachers colleges and CAEs that were converted to university status in the 1990s.

The fact that the vice-chancellor of a prominent Australian university can display this kind of ignorance about the US system is pretty startling, the fact that he is quoted with approval by a body representing the VCs of our eight leading universities even more so. Universities are (among other things) billion-dollar businesses, and their chief executives are paid accordingly. A basic part of any business is understanding the competition, especially if you plan to emulate them. Bebbington’s description of the US non-research university sector is as if a car company CEO were to describe the Trabant as an affordable German luxury car, and suggest marketing it in place of the drab offerings of Holden and Ford.

[^1]: Of course, hardly anyone pays full fare at these institutions. There are all kinds of schemes to offset the cost. Still, a middle class family thinking of sending a child to Wellesley would regard the much-discussed $100 000 degree as an incredible bargain.

30 thoughts on “The Go8 knows nothing about the US university system

  1. @James

    I have a feeling you’re right about the abolition of the public service entry exams, both Federal and State, although I would want to double-check before committing myself on the point. But suppose it’s true. It does mean the cutting off of one procedurally straightforward avenue for entering a career, so it makes that a more cumbersome and tedious process (and harder for people like me who respond well to exam conditions, although perhaps not so for the people who respond badly to them), but by itself it has no effect one way or the other on the opportunities for career advancement once you’re in, nor or the availability of on-the-job training; and it also has no effect one way or the other on how people get into non-government careers, which was never based on anything resembling the public service exams.

    So ‘the public service exams have been abolished; therefore, less on-the-job training is available’ doesn’t make sense, and neither does ‘the public service exams have been abolished; therefore, less career progression exists’.

  2. Ironically, Paul Keating, who did more than anybody to bring about today’s insane over-credentialised privatised jobs and education market didn’t even finish his own secondary education. Whilst, I think Keating’s skills and merit have been highly over-rated, his example demonstrates that if even if you lack formal qualifications you may still have the necessary skills for a job.

    J-D @ #26 wrote:

    … it makes that a more cumbersome and tedious process (and harder for people like me who respond well to exam conditions, although perhaps not so for the people who respond badly to them) …

    I think those that failed to get a good enough mark in public service entrance exams would have, in the past, been far more likely to find satisfactory alternative careers than what is on offer today: MacDonalds and other fast food franchises, casual, non-unionised work – all through a shambolic system of private job-placement agencies in place of the old Commonwealth Employment Service.

    J-D wrote:

    So ‘the public service exams have been abolished; therefore, less on-the-job training is available’ doesn’t make sense, and neither does ‘the public service exams have been abolished; therefore, less career progression exists’.

    The reason that many government workers, in my experience, find it necessary to spend evenings and weekends studying at their own expense, is that is the only way they see that their career can advance.

    Another problem for many is that the supposed merit-based systems for job advancement, which have replaced the older seniority based systems, are often abused by managers so that many workers miss out unfairly.

    In previous years, that wasn’t necessary for career advancement. I think we should also question of what actual value much of the training at tertiary institutions is for the work performed. Even capable tertiary institutions would not find it easy to teach useful skills for a work environment.

    The real goal of Keating’s ‘reforms’ was to serve the local and global elites at the expense of ordinary Australians, and future generations.

  3. @James

    Maybe I have misunderstood what you are saying, but it seems as if you are saying that all sorts of things are now much worse than they used to be (which is probably true, but it’s equally likely that, at the same time, all sorts of other things are now much better than they used to be), and that so it must be because of changes made by governments that things have got worse. But that doesn’t follow. Things getting worse and things getting better both happen all the time, and always have, and sometimes it’s because of changes made by governments, but sometimes it isn’t.

  4. @bjb

    If you look at large classes in university nowadays, they are largely online. And at some point people will realise that there should be different fees for different units. Because at the moment the students who do ACCT101 (particularly the ones who fail) subsidise the rest of the faculty.

    It should also be noted that many students are making the decision to turn traditional units into online units by not attending lectures and just watching the recordings. And these are conscientious students. The slack ones don’t go to lectures and don’t watch the recordings.

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