There are two contrasting views on the future of Australian universities.
Don't for one minute think that what happens at universities only affects the academics, professional staff and students engaged in these institutions. What happens in universities affects all of us, all the time. It affects our hospitals and schools. It affects our roads, bridges and buildings. You don't have to go to a university to experience the benefits they provide.
So what are the two views? One, espoused by Labor leadership contender Tanya Plibersek, reimagines our country as a land of educational opportunity, one which generously lifts up everyone in our quest to make Australia better. The other, espoused by Diseducation Minister Alan Tudge, grindingly goes through the minutiae of how to commercialise university research and then scolds universities for two items: not getting enough students back to campus, and not subscribing to a model code for freedom of speech. Hurry, hurry, hurry.
The scene for these two views? The Universities Australia conference held at the National Convention Centre.
So, let's compare the pair.
Let me acknowledge it is easier to be inspiring from opposition, and anyone who heard Plibersek on Radio National on Thursday morning talking about the shift from her parents' lives to her own generation would have signed up immediately.
"My mum and dad grew up in houses with dirt floors, subsistence farming. And in one generation, my brothers and I were able to go to university because of the changes the Whitlam government made. That's the sort of opportunity I want to see for all Australians."
That was her warm-up act for the speech she delivered at UA where she described Australia's postwar reconstruction.
"The centrepiece of that program after World War II was a job and a home for every Australian. And with the leadership of Ben Chifley's Labor government, the plan succeeded - with a long period of full employment and a massive rise in home ownership. What might be less known is the central role that universities played in reconstruction."
Oh Gaia. Just the prospect of a job and a home for every Australian gives me goosebumps. Which is a good thing, because the Education Minister's speech drained away any hope I had that the government, in which nearly every individual benefited from higher education, would come to the rescue. Far from it. Let me remind you that funding for universities was cut by 10 per cent at the last budget, and the Centre for Future Work's Dan Nahum calculates 35,000 jobs were lost in education by November 2020. That includes all sectors, but Nahum says most were in the tertiary sector.
Instead of addressing the chaos, Tudge cheerfully outlined what he called the "relative positive news" about the impact on enrolments of Covid. Not that bad, folks.
In a sector which has lost thousands and thousands of jobs, Tudge claims positive news. Total international student enrolments are down 11 per cent on 2019 figures, which, he Tudged, means "revenue from border closures to date is about 3 per cent down". At least he recognised some universities were harder hit than others - and that commencements are down far more than those aggregate figures.
It's those "commencements" that will be the killer. The students who didn't start do not continue to second year, or third year, or an honours year. Then they don't get replaced until way down the track. So that has a compounding impact, which Tudge writes off in a few words.
He then complains vice-chancellors have spoken to him about research and international students, "but not many talk to me about their ambitions for Australian students ... I am still hearing from too many students or their parents who tell me that their usual student experience has still not returned ... so for this year, we must see a focus in our universities on how to enhance the classroom and learning experience of Australian students."
Finally we discover Alan Tudge has a sense of humour! That can be the only reason for this baloney. His comments are from a representative of a government which refuses to fund learning and teaching innovation and development. Point-blank refuses. "How to enhance the classroom and learning experience of Australian students"? Honestly, I'm falling about the floor laughing. And crying.
Sally Kift, president of Australian Teaching and Learning Fellows, is puzzled.
"Higher education must be the only industry in Australia which doesn't need to keep innovating," she says.
"Under this government we have seen the continuing demise of funding into learning and teaching excellence."
Kift also reminds me this government ditched the Office for Learning and Teaching, or whatever it was called in its final iteration, in 2016. And she points out a final boot in the side of higher education: "Now the meagre amount of $600,000 per annum to fund national teaching awards and a teaching and learning repository [housing higher education research and resources] was ditched in the last budget. That's how seriously this government takes investment in teaching and learning excellence and the quality of the student experience."
Also, why does Tudge single out Australian students? For years this government has adored profits from international students. Do they no longer matter?
As Plibersek said in her speech, both Ben Chifley and Robert Menzies supported a vision of a modern university system which "could support industry and help drive a post-war economic boom".
We are not yet postwar - or, in this case, postpandemic. COVID-19 has caused immeasurable harm to our communities and to our patchily recovering economy. Those who work at universities hardly need another lecture from government about how to do better. Students would prefer a government which did not hike up fees, as it did when it introduced the Job-ready Graduates Package. Whatever jargon it used to excuse that, the result was higher fees for courses, which changed demand not one iota.
We have a real problem. In some cases, university management has exploited the pandemic problem (and in any case, as I have written elsewhere, has refused to take on the government). Academics for Public Universities, a newly formed group of academics across Australian universities, argues a lack of funding is not the only problem the system faces. They point to an underlying crisis of governance culture and public accountability in our universities. We have the same problems in our government.
- Jenna Price is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.