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.