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Winter 2013 Issue
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The university funding paradox

Professor Pascale Quester, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President (Academic) of the University of Adelaide, gave a damning critique of the Federal Government's proposed cuts to university funding during a speech to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia. This is an edited version of her address.

I love Australia. I love it for its youth, its energy, its humour, its cosmopolitan vibe and irreverence, its fair-go mentality and, by and large, its tolerance. Tolerance of new people and of new ideas. But, I regret to say, there is also tolerance for weird and plethoric government structures, and structurally short-term political vision.

Not least amongst the paradoxes is this one: Australia is a country where farmers are perceived as national heroes for growing the food and meat necessary to feed future mouths but where teachers, whose fields are our young and whose crop is human capital, are awarded very little respect. A country where mining companies have more influence on government policy than universities where knowledge is invested into young minds in order to yield years of innovation, better decision-making, and more articulate social debate.

Some may argue that recent government action demonstrates that, in fact, Australia values education highly. After two years of consultation and analysis the country is set to spend millions on what is now known as the Gonski reforms. But beyond the symbolism, the corollary to this investment has been a cut to the funding of universities.

A year ago I reported that funding per capita was already greater in state schools than it was in universities. And in low socio-economic status areas, funding per student was almost double that of universities. Since then, Bradley and Lomax-Smith both advocated a necessary lift in university funding, their advice falling on deaf ears.

Gonski advocates, quite rightly in my view, that more should be done for school students. His voice has not only been heard but also taken up with gusto by our government. But what Gonski never said was that in order to achieve this, a reduction in per capita funding for each university student was an acceptable price to pay.

He did not say it because, quite frankly, no one in their right mind would say this. This is like encouraging farmers to grow more and better products on their farms, and then cutting the road and the infrastructure that would allow them to go to market in order to reap their full potential value.

Research has conclusively demonstrated time and time again the positive spill over of a more educated population, from greater individual income and consumption, to higher national levels of productivity and innovation.

Gonski tells us to invest more into schools and if this does indeed deliver better literacy, numeracy and analytical skills in all 17 years old citizens, then what a great investment. But will these young articulate minds want to stop there and why exactly would we want them to do so?

So the greatest paradox of the Australian education system is this: stepping out of year 12 is, in this country, like falling on the other side of the mirror. No longer a nation building purpose, education becomes a service sector and a source of foreign income.

What was, up to year 12, a worthy cause for taxpayer investments becomes, clearly and very suddenly, an unacceptable burden on the public purse, so much so that those lucky enough to get it will have to pay it back, and in full.

If universities can't afford to support their costs, then perhaps governments of neighbouring countries, including some so poor they can't afford a university system themselves, should be made to cough up to support young Australians who want a degree.

And when universities dutifully comply and recruit more international students, then a huge compliance framework is imposed by government, along with expensive quality assurance systems. As a result teams of 40 to 50 people are commonly employed by universities just to document processes and reply to surveys designed in Canberra to 'monitor' the system.

But wait, there is more! As well as wanting higher education to be a profitable export sector, Australia also wants more, not fewer, of its own young people to go to universities. In fact it has set the ambitious target that 40 per cent of its citizens aged 25 to 34 will have a bachelor degree by 2025.

The education system in Australia will thrive if all of its parts work together. That means improved schools should lead to improved universities. More resources in one can't make sense without more resources in the other. They both serve the same purpose: to future-proof the country by growing and adding value to what is fundamentally any country's most precious asset: its human capital.

Perhaps more importantly, it will thrive if it operates in the right environment. And this must surely be an environment where education is treated with the full respect it deserves.

Why is it that in Australia, when you introduce yourself as a university lecturer, you almost have to apologise? I have been in this country for over 20 years now but every time I visit my native France, I am struck by just how much status and respect the mention of a university position earns you there.

What sort of country are we to show so much disrespect for intelligence? What is it in the culture of this place, one that is proud of its fair dinkum stance on most things that you can pick on universities without creating a popular backlash? As a nation, we have much to be proud of, but our approach to education, and our treatment of universities, is certainly not one of them.

The University of Adelaide will probably have to cope with shortfalls stepping up to $20 million per annum by 2015. If this nation wants world ranking universities, if it wants to educate the citizens it needs for a brighter future, if it wants the innovation and progress that comes with university-led research and development, then it must be prepared to invest more, not less, in universities.

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