February 19th 2011

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Articles from this issue:

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Julia Gillard's fragile grip on power

EDITORIAL: Why utility prices are going through the roof

HOUSING: Australia has the least affordable housing

MIDDLE EAST I: Arab turmoil to change Middle East power balance

MIDDLE EAST II: Obama learns nothing from Bush's Middle East failures

UNITED STATES I: Obama's State of the Union address

UNITED STATES II: Tirade of calumny directed at Sarah Palin

UNITED STATES III: Ronald Reagan remembered

HIGHER EDUCATION: The rise of the entrepreneurial university

CLIMATE CHANGE: New research rebuts man-made global warming

EUTHANASIA: Ageism on the increase in Amsterdam

OPINION: Australia's identity with the Christian West

OPINION: Farmers' livelihoods under attack

WikiLeaks 1 (letter)

WikiLeaks 2 (letter)

La Niña, not CO2 (letter)

Government's insult to home mothers (letter)

Feminists on stamps (letter)

AS THE WORLD TURNS: More British Christians converting to Islam / Commonwealth Chief Rabbi rejects multiculturalism / US teenage pregnancies / The Muslim Brotherhood

BOOK REVIEW: UNPLANNED, by Abby Johnson with Cindy Lambert

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The rise of the entrepreneurial university

by Alan Barcan

News Weekly, February 19, 2011
Australian universities are, except in a few regional areas, mass universities: multipurpose institutions offering a potentially bewildering range of courses. They are entrepreneurial bodies, no longer primarily supported by state grants but heavily reliant on non-state "outside" funding. They are bureaucratic corporations run by a large administrative class.

Grant Harman, professor of educational management at the University of New England, New South Wales, summed up in 2001 the main changes in Australian higher education over the previous decade and a half:

• an almost doubling of total student enrolments;

• major expansion in research activity and closer research and training links with industry;

• a more market-oriented and competitive regulatory environment;

• less dependence on government grants for operating expenses and substantial increases in non-government funding;

• a more international orientation; and,

• within universities, a more managerial approach to governance.

These changes closely mirrored those that have occurred in other OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, particularly New Zealand, Britain and Scandinavia.

A policy statement on research and research training, issued in 1999 by the Howard Coalition Government's education minister Dr David Kemp, emphasised the importance of closer links between academics and industry.

It said: "Australia's researchers are well used to producing truly excellent work. An entrepreneurial approach is needed to harness the full cycle of benefits from their endeavours through commercialisation, where appropriate. This culture of entrepreneurship needs to be the context for the training of our research students, and indeed all students."

The new-style university was in considerable measure a product of financial circumstances. The Sydney Morning Herald remarked last year on the economic deterioration of universities over the previous two decades.

It reported: "Since 1989, government funding as a proportion of university revenues has shrunk from 77 per cent to 44 per cent. This has forced universities to make hard decisions. Some compromise in the quality of teaching has been inevitable, with staff-to-student ratios rising from 1:13 in the mid-1990s to about 1:20 today."

The paper did not mention another "hard decision": an increase in the proportion of part-time (casual) lecturers.

It did dwell on the efforts to attract foreign full-fee-paying students. Australia had the highest proportion of international students in its tertiary institutions in the world, bringing in $17 billion a year. Universities were dependent on fees from foreign students, "many of whom no doubt also hope the qualifications and skills they learn here will enable them to call Australia home". (Sydney Morning Herald, August 2, 2010).

While the universities sought the fees of overseas students, many of these were seeking a back door entry to permanent residency in Australia. The Labor Government attempted to repair the situation by narrowing the criteria for foreign students seeking citizenship, but contrary pressures were also operating.

In early April 2010, the "group of eight" major universities called for a new Australian temporary work visa for three-year postgraduate students which could lead to permanent residency. "IDP [International Development Program] Education Australia", which claimed to represent more than 1,000 Australian institutions and to have offices in 50 countries, explained to overseas students how they could study in Australia.

However, a better way of ensuring the financial health of universities was a government promise that from 2012 arbitrary caps were to be removed and universities funded on the basis of student enrolments.

The starting point for all this had been introduction by the Hawke Labor Government minister for education, John Dawkins, of the "Unified National System" in 1988/89. This blurred the distinction between advanced and higher education by coalescing the colleges of advanced education with the universities.

One purpose of these new large multi-purpose institutions was to save money. The Tertiary Education Commission was abolished; the minister now took direct responsibility for funding.

Another change was the introduction of special entry schemes. The 1988 White Paper announced that more university places should be offered so that a wider range of students could enter.

In May 1990, the Commonwealth Government spelt out its requirements in a policy paper, A Fair Chance for All. This identified six disadvantaged groups: the socio-economically disadvantaged, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, women in non-traditional courses or postgraduate studies, people from non-English speaking backgrounds, people with disabilities, and people from rural and isolated areas. Universities were allocated funds under the Higher Education Equity Program to help redress the situation.

Research grants made a notable contribution to the "earned income" of universities, as distinct from Commonwealth grants, the minimal state grants, and the Higher Education Contribution Scheme.

Research income increased from 27 to 32 per cent of total income in NSW universities between 1992 and 1998, from 21 to 36 per cent in Victorian, 24 to 30 per cent in Queensland, 24 to 38 per cent in West Australian, 12 to 27 per cent in South Australian, 21 to 28 per cent for the two universities in the ACT, 6 to 25 per cent for the Northern Territory University and 10 to 13 per cent in the Australian Catholic University. In Tasmania it fell slightly, from 21 to 20 per cent.

The old distinction between pure and applied research had lost its aura. The emphasis had shifted from fundamental basic research to commercially/industry-oriented research. Yet Australians had performed well in pure research, having scored almost a dozen Nobel Prizes.

A main contributor to the increased percentage of private funding was the amount of fees paid by international students. At the turn of the century Australia had the highest proportion of international students of 18 advanced economies, ranking only behind Switzerland.

Australia also had the second lowest proportion of university students studying full-time, 62 per cent, compared with the 18-country mean of 84 per cent. This probably reflected Australia's high proportion of mature-age students as well as the operation of financial pressures. The proportion of 18-year-olds who were full-students and working full-time or part-time rose from 35 per cent in 1987 to 55 per cent in 1999.

The sharp drop in the public funding of universities and the rise in student-staff ratios outpaced growth in academic staff.

An increasing proportion of students nominally attending full-time were now also employed outside the university. A 2002 survey of changes in academic life reported that "Full-time undergraduates now work on average more than fourteen hours per week during semester, up from five hours in the 1980s."

While the presence of large numbers of overseas students produced financial benefits to the administration, it caused problems for the academic staff, such as poor English, plagiarism, and resentment of failure in examinations.

The University of Newcastle attracted unwelcome but widespread publicity in 2004 because of a failure to react to plagiarism, confusion produced by downsizing, and botched financial management.

Concern about standards had become prevalent throughout higher education. A decade ago, the Sydney Morning Herald remarked that "the demands on the institutions to produce work-ready students have coincided with a managerialist approach, forcing the universities to look for funding from sources other than government coffers".

The article mentioned a report published in January 2001 by the Australia Institute, a Canberra-based think-tank, suggesting that many academics were dismayed at the way commercial pressures were tending to corrupt their world. In particular, claims were voiced of "soft marking" of full-fee-paying students, their borderline work was being passed to ensure they stayed on at a particular institution.

According to the report: "One academic, a biologist, Dr Ted Steele, was summarily dismissed by the University of Wollongong after alleging he had been told to upgrade marks." (Sydney Morning Herald, March 15, 2001).

One in five of those surveyed felt that funding priorities had forced them to stick to "safe" research projects. The newspaper warned that "there will be times when a preoccupation with financial outcomes will be detrimental to the proper pursuit of knowledge".

Universities had assumed new functions. Governments were less important as sources of funds. The arts faculty, overshadowed by training and commercial activities, lost much of its liberal humanist orientation.

Research had become a major preoccupation but one which now focused primarily in a practical and commercial direction. Postgraduate students and overseas students provided new, fruitful sources of revenue.

Dr Alan Barcan was formerly associate professor in education at the University of Newcastle, Australia. He is author of a number of studies, including Sociological Theory and Educational Reality: Education and Society in Australia since 1949 (Sydney: New South Wales University Press, 2003), available from News Weekly Books for $20.00.

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