Opinion- 21 June 2010

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Universities: the Stepchildren of the Education Revolution



pdf file-available from Australasian Science


The federal Minister for Education, Julia Gillard, in an opinion piece published in this past Saturday's Australian writes: "At the heart of our reforms is the ambition to create a world-class tertiary education system that benefits all Australians, regardless of their background." The minister then proceeds in general terms to compare the increased support the Rudd government has provided to Australia's universities to the progressive diminution of resources provided by the Coalition government under John Howard.



We have invested to deliver improvements in university infrastructure, provide more support for research, drive improvements in the quality of teaching and improve equity.

This is in sharp contrast to the approach of the Howard government, which starved universities of funding, tied them up in red tape and failed to recognise the capacity of universities to promote a stronger and fairer Australia.

Under the Rudd government, Australia is making substantial investments in higher education at a time when other nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development are making cuts.



And yet less than a fortnight ago Colin Walters, acting deputy secretary of the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, was reported as stating that Australia was faring better than at least 10 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, including Britain, Italy and Ireland, which face higher education funding cuts of up to 10 per cent.


As TFW noted at the time: "Considering there are 31 OECD nations Mr Walters is either wrong, been misquoted or Australia's higher education sector is in serious strife." And now in the June 17 issue of Nature Bruno S. Frey & Margit Osterloh at the University of Zürich in discussing the use of metrics and approaches toward staff motivation write: "In Australia, the metric of number of peer-reviewed publications was linked to the funding of many universities and individual scholars in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The country's share of publications in the Science Citation Index (SCI) increased by 25% over a decade, but its citation impact ranking dropped from sixth out of 11 OECD countries in 1988 to tenth by 1993 (Butler, L. Res. Policy 32, 143155 (2003))".


In short, Ms Gillard is being judicious in her use of comparisons. Perhaps that's being politically clever, but it's hardly in the interest of improving our universities relative to that of our cohort nations. The real lift which began with the 2009-10 budget is being eroded in the lack of it being sustained. In addition, while Ms Gillard reproves the Howard government for increasing the red tape encumbering universities, Labor, although changing the mechanisms of delivery, is equally guilty. Unfortunately for Australia's universities, their importance as affecting voter behaviour is minimal at best, even though their importance to the medium and long term quality of life of its population is significant or as Ms Gillard writes in the second paragraph of her op-ed: "Put simply, education is the best way to ensure the Australia of the future has a strong economy and offers every child a great start in life."


Well, words spoken or written are cheap (see also: A real and pernicious debt).


As matters are unfolding, it appears likely that sometime in the future Julia Gillard will assume the leadership of the Australian Labor Party. Perhaps now in her role of Minister for Education/Deputy Prime Minister she might consider visiting several of the world's outstanding centres of learning and research and begin by having chats with their vice-chancellors or presidents.


Several suggestions with which to begin the list:


University of Cambridge - Alison Richard

  Harvard University - Drew Gilpin Faust

    Massachusetts Institute of Technology - Susan Hockfield

      Princeton University - Shirley Tilghman

        Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute - Shirley Ann Jackson

          University of Pennsylvania - Amy Guttman

            University of Michigan - Mary Sue Coleman


Alex Reisner

The Funneled Web