ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : Well, it’s here. The final episode of The New Social Contract podcast. And we’re just in time to catch the latest iteration of proposed changes to Australia’s higher education system announced by Minister Tehan on a winter’s day in June.
HON. DAN TEHAN on ABC News
‘University fee changes announced by Dan Tehan combine market-based economics with social engineering’
As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, we’re going to see more demand for places in the higher education system. We want to incentivise students to undertake courses that will give them the skills to take the jobs of the future, to look at teaching, to look at nursing, to look at allied health engineering, to look at IT because we know the jobs of the future will be in those areas.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : So what is behind Minister Tehan’s announcements? They’ve been widely criticised as an attack on the humanities. But is this really their main purpose? How might they help us to think through the challenges universities are facing and the ways they might be remade? Today on The New Social Contract, I’m joined by my colleague, Dr. Gwilym Croucher, a senior lecturer at the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education. As we, for the final time, look at how the relationship between universities, the state and the public might be reshaped as we live through the COVID-19 pandemic. In today’s episode, we’re going to look beyond Minister Tehan’s proposals to ask three questions. What is the vision for higher education that lies behind the Coalition government’s plans? What bigger questions about universities do they raise? And what might be some of the other ways those questions could be answered? We started The New Social Contract podcast back in April of 2020. At the time, we were just entering the depths of the corona pandemic – divorced from our daily lives. We already knew the impact of this time would have far reaching effects, but the consequences for higher education in Australia were still unclear.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : So let’s take a look back at where we’ve been.
DR JAMES WAGHORNE: Universities have not really had to face an ongoing period of stasis or reduction in demand throughout their history. We’re in new territory here.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : We began by examining the history of the social contract between universities and the public.
DR JAMES WAGHORNE: There have been a number of really profound disruptions within the Australian university system, the Great Depression, the Second World War and then reconstruction. We could think of the Dawkins changes, which brought enormous mergers and amalgamations into the system.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : Then we turned to the more recent past to explore the context of the crisis.
TIM DODD: They discovered what really was a magic money making machine. You could bring in international students and this would pay for more research. But as we can see, there was a weakness in this circle.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : And in our bonus episode, we heard the voices of students and university staff – to get insight into what was happening on the ground at campuses across Australia.
ANNA HUSH: COVID-19 has made it really clear the extent to which the university relies on casual staff and also relies on the ability to get rid of us when it needs to.
JENNA PRICE: You can’t read the zoom in the same way that you can read the room.
AMAN KAPUR: International students, when we come, have like so many dreams.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : And in episode three, we tried to figure out what it all meant for different parts of the sector.
DR ALISON BARNES: I don’t think higher education in this country has ever faced a crisis as deep and as great as COVID-19.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : We thought about the different ways in which the public mission of the university might be remade by climate change.
PROFESSOR MARK HOWDEN: We are at a crossroads. I fear that the default pathway will be ‘return to the way things were.’ For me That actually means that we’d miss a great opportunity to do something different and to leverage off our skills and capacity as a nation. To have some leadership that takes us into an Australia that we want to have, rather than just by default. And I think in particular, that means dealing with climate change.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR LAUREN RICKARDS: Universities, we have the temporal reach. We have the spatial reach to think across time periods. And we can actually help devise and find and give voice to much more useful ways of thinking about the world and humans’ role in it.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : And how the role of higher education is entangled with the needs of the nation’s changing workforce.
MEGAN LILLY: I don’t think anyone can realistically expect to exit a qualification, get a job and stay in that job for their working life. Those days are long gone.
ALISON PENNINGTON: Employers have become very content and they’re used to being able to get their pick of the underutilised labour markets. They can pick who they want. They keep bleating about skills shortages. At the same time, we’ve seen a huge decline in employers investing in the skills of the workforce.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : As well as how universities are building a new kind of relationship with the communities they serve.
MATTHEW COX: The pursuit of knowledge and the discovery of knowledge is such a valuable resource for society and for community. It always does baffle me a little bit that there isn’t much more scaffolded and strong links to translation. Why would you develop that knowledge and then not do everything you can to see it used?
PROFESSOR JIM NYLAND: We will not return to the old normal, once we work our way through this pandemic. And I think we’ll see universities partner more effectively and more obviously, because I think in the end, universities will no longer be seen as the single repository or the epicentre for the creation of knowledge.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : And finally, we heard from two people whose job it is to lead a university and to shape the policy settings in which universities operate. UTS Vice-Chancellor Attila Brungs.
VICE-CHANCELLOR ATTILA BRUNGS: A university is a public institution. We exist solely for public good. What I would like to see is that ethos continue – call it your new social contract. Where our public institutions are fit for purpose to help our society prosper in the long term.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : And the Shadow Minister for Education and Training, Tanya Plibersek.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : So what then does it mean to be a public university in the 21st century?
THE HON. TANYA PLIBERSEK: I think it probably means much the same as it did a thousand years ago. It’s a nourishing of the individual and a nourishing of our society. That’s the responsibility of universities – if you strip it all away. It’s giving every person the opportunity of developing their mind, their spirit, their understanding of the world, their passions. But it’s also giving us as a society a way of developing not only our economic wealth, but our intellectual wealth as well.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : So where does that leave us? With Minister Tehan’s proposals for differential student contributions on the table and a plan for research funding yet to be announced – what does it all add up to? Can we discern the outlines of what the current government thinks the relationship between universities, government and the public should be?
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: It’s definitely about some students paying more and some students paying less with the logic that they want to incentivise some areas of study and disincentivise other areas of study.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : That is a pretty big departure from the logic of HECS, which until now, still is, attached to expected graduate earnings and cost of the degree. So now we’re shifting towards a logic of differential fees based on expected job prospects or needed job areas.
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: This is one the most important things about these reforms.The government says that it’s wanting to subsidise those degrees that credit job prospects. But that that’s not entirely accurate. There’s definitely a dose of ideology here. Part of it is that there’s not a lot of an evidence base that sits underneath how much you charge students. It’s always going to be partly judgement. It’s a normative question. It’s about what people think students should pay. It’s about what’s politically acceptable. There’s no magic to it.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : Well, it seems pretty evident that there’s a kind of shift in the balance where funding is coming from. That overall government is putting in less. Overall, individuals are putting in more – even though the distribution of that is shifting across different disciplines in different ways. And then I’m also wondering about what the implications are for moving towards a divided sector. Or differentiating the sector more – so that teaching and research goes together in some institutions. And other institutions are focusing perhaps more on teaching only. That seems to me to be the underlying logic.
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: There’s obviously an incentive in this package for some universities to provide some degrees rather than others, so therefore focus on some areas. But whether it really does anything to differentiate the system, I’m not entirely convinced. And the reason for that is at the moment, a lot of the younger institutions offer many of the subjects in large numbers that the government is trying to incentivise. Some of the ones that they’re trying to disincentivise tend to be at the older and quite popular larger universities. You know, the Go8 and others. So whether it will have any real effect in the long run, I’m not convinced. The second really important thing here is to think about how students are going to respond. You know, if students are benefiting from the HECS, the HELP system, which they are. And as it was designed, it was supposed to and certainly does mean that students don’t face anywhere near as large upfront costs. They don’t have to pay fees. Then there’s nothing to stop them doing an arts degree. And although, you know, humanities degrees are going to become quite expensive. Over the course of a lifetime, the loan terms are pretty good. So these may remain very popular degrees. The other key thing to think about is that the amount that any university receives from an arts student, assuming that they do all arts subjects during their degree, will actually increase. The student contribution is the reason for that. And although the direct government subsidy is reducing, then the net is greater. So there’s really an incentive for universities to offer these degrees.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : We’ve had a lot of attention in the media to the rising cost of certain degrees, including the humanities. And then this question of whether or not it will affect student behaviour. But buried in those documents that were released on the Minister’s website were also measures around regional support and Indigenous support. Do you think that’s going to be enough to get it across the line in terms of the Senate?
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: It certainly will help. As we know, the politics of higher education in Australia is very much tied to the politics of support for the regions. Rightly so in many ways. Some of the regional measures are some of the most important because they constrain the number of new Commonwealth supported places that will be offered to universities in the cities compared to those regional institutions. Many of the regional institutions have been ones that have been most affected by the downturn in international students. So perhaps this is one way that they can have a bit more certainty.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : Minister Tehan’s proposals draw attention to several questions about universities that often go unstated. I asked Gwil what he thought lay behind the plans. What concepts they took for granted and what remained unchanged.
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: One glaring omission, the elephant in the room, is that this doesn’t directly provide any support for a downturn in the international market, as we’re seeing now. It doesn’t help universities restructure transition from the fallout from that.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : That’s actually really important, isn’t it? It would be easy to look at these reforms and kind of get lost in them on their own terms. But they’re not really attending to the kind of broader context in which COVID is playing out.
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: Absolutely. They don’t really do anything for adjusting how the research system is funded in Australia. And that’s a huge part of it.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : Well, that’s exactly it, isn’t it? I mean, they leave out research. Or more to the point, they remove it. I mean, at the moment, the Commonwealth government subsidy for each student includes an amount that universities put towards the research component of most academic jobs. Right. You know, it’s often called 40/40/20. 40 teaching, 40 research and 20 of service and administration. Recognising that teaching and research go together. But in aligning the total teaching funding that universities receive for each student with the cost of providing that teaching, don’t these proposals in effect abolish that general research funding? Do you see this as a wedge being driven between teaching and research funding?
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: This is the question. Should universities be provided very separate money for research projects or should they just be given an amount and expected to give it to their teaching and research efforts? It’s becoming clearer and clearer that the government is probably interested in having quite separate teaching and research funding.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : The government is not the only one interested in that. There will be certain universities that are also interested in that.
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: When we talk about teaching and research it’s as if they’re very different activities. And in many ways of course they are. But they also do often inform each other. You know, when somebody is preparing a lecture or, you know, thinking about how they’re going to teach students, they can also be thinking about research. When we talk about research funding, what we’re really talking about is funding for people to do something. Right? It’s funding for time. And so I would say, you know what people spend their time on.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : But what I’m hearing you saying is that it’s always going to be connected. What’s at stake is the nature of that connection? How much time is allocated to individuals? How feasible is it in a kind of work plan? And what the reward system is maybe? What the status mechanisms are?
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: Yeah, and it’s hard to get around the importance of the issue of status. Do people want to research because they want to research? Or do people want to research because they feel they have to research?
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : Another of the chestnuts buried in the pile of Tehan’s announcements was the notion of a kind of teaching only college. Does it matter what we call our institutions?
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: It might matter to Australians, but it doesn’t necessarily matter to other people around the world. Internationally, the term university is used for all sorts of institutions. So while we might have a particular idea, or at least people in Australia think that a particular idea of what constitutes a university, that’s not necessarily universal.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : So why have we become attached to that term?
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: This probably goes back to the changes that happened during the Dawkins period because institutions then that were called a number of different things, schools, colleges were given the choice about whether they wanted to be called universities. And they all decided to become universities.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : And a kind of status attached to that. Like a class status that reflects class politics of Australian society.
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: Part of the thing in Australia is that there are still many people in governments that think of universities as a bit of a middle class signalling trick. Now, if these people are making decisions about the system, they make it become so. They’re the messages they’re sending out then, you know rightly enough, that’s how a lot of people think about it.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : So by that, Gwil you mean that having a university degree is a sign that you are a member of the middle class? It’s a performance – like wearing a certain kind of jacket.
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: Absolutely. Both in the performative sense. But also in the sense that economists talk about it, which is to literally signal to the market the type of person you are.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : Were you suggesting that governments of both stripes have completely colluded in that and introduced policies that enabled the middle classes to maintain that performance?
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: Collude is probably too strong a word, but that certainly appears the way that a lot of people in government continue to think about higher education. It doesn’t matter what these institutions are called, it matters what they do. But just calling an institution a university doesn’t mean that it has to have a comprehensive set of offerings across all different subjects. It doesn’t mean that it has to have research programs and all those subjects. It doesn’t mean that it has to have PhD degrees. This is an artifact partly of Australian history and our law. But it’s not universal. There’s nothing intrinsic to it.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : So it’s one of the red herrings of our current debate. It’s a distraction really.
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: I mean, are we more worried about what these institutions do or what they’re called? If we’re more worried about what they’re called, we’re in a pretty dark place.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : It also leads to this next question of, how much university is too much university? Particularly, if anything can be called one
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: So when we say how much university is too much university – is partly asking how much higher education is too much higher education? Higher education is one of the great inventions. It’s undeniable that it is both good and popular. But having said that, it does come at a cost. So part of the question is, does everybody need to do a three year degree? Would they be better off with a two year degree and be be perfectly satisfied? Are we artificially forcing people to undertake more education than they would otherwise choose to do?
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : And do you think the answer to that question is different from different sides of politics?
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: There’s definitely an element to that, but let’s not forget that it’s gone backwards and forwards over time between the two sides of politics. I don’t think it’s intrinsically one side of politics or the other. Different governments might have different views.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : I guess I’m asking is there appetite, anywhere you see in the political spectrum, for making the number of higher education places smaller? There might be discussion about what those places look like, what kinds of institutions they’re in. But I’m not really seeing any arguments saying we need fewer people doing higher education.
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: No. And I can’t really think of a country where that’s a particularly prominent argument. There’s obviously got to be a limit to how much education we can fund as a society. While people are in higher education, they’re out of the workforce. It’s a hugely expensive exercise for any society to fund. Does everybody need a master’s degree? Well, not necessarily. Does everybody want a masters degree? Not necessarily. Are we incentivising people to get an undergraduate degree in Australia? Well, we are. You know in many ways it is easier to sign up to a three year bachelor degree than it is to undertake some shorter course. Especially some vocational courses where you might face higher upfront costs.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : And a lot of the messages we’re getting both from inside universities and also policymakers is that is changing.
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: There is definitely effort. And it’s not just this government. It’s from a number of quarters. To try and break that status prestige, which is that university will always be better. Well, it won’t necessarily always be better, and that’s not the way that many countries think about it. There are many countries where what we in Australia call vocational education is just as prestigious in many ways as university education. They’re different.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : Again, I think it’s really useful to think about how that happened in Australia. If you think about the sort of diversity of knowledge institutions in Australia in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, there were many. They included working men’s clubs, they included XX (A-tha-na-um?) societies. They included the XX (Le-na-um?) Society. They included technical secondary schools. They obviously included the institutes of technology, pharmacy colleges. You know a whole set of professional run teaching provision. And a lot of kind of on the ground research that was done in private or in in the workplace. That’s a really diverse ecology of knowledge has kind of come to be monopolised in many ways. The university drew a lot of those bodies into itself and came to have a monopoly over the credentialisation of knowledge in the second part of the 20th century. And it’s benefited enormously from that. Our societies, in some ways, have benefited. But it is the story of a second part of the 20th century. And I guess what we’re seeing is the possibility that that monopoly might be broken up.
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: And it’s a monopoly, like a lot of monopolies, that’s come at a pretty high cost. Especially because the universities are quite path dependent. They travel on a certain way. It becomes very hard to change what they do. And also, it becomes hard to change the way we think about it.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : Are there limits on what universities can and should do? Is something lost when we look to universities and we want them to be pseudo states, really?
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: Universities do a lot of things. But that doesn’t mean that they’re ‘everything factories’. They might have a role in doing things like supporting economic growth through providing graduates, through providing research. But that doesn’t mean that they should have the sole responsibility for economic growth in any country. I mean, it’s even the same with research. They’ve obviously got a critical role to play in the nation’s research effort. But they are not the only people that are contributing to that research effort. Unless we’ve got some really clear boundaries around what we want the institutions to do and most importantly, not do, then we run into the trap where we ask them to do everything, which they cannot do, and then we damn them for it.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : So what can we take from that when we’re thinking about international versus domestic students in Australian universities?
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: The first question we have to ask is, are we treating every student the same? Is a student, a student, a student? And that’s not straightforward. The reason that we provide benefits to Australian students, that’s because they’re citizens. There’s a whole series of reasons for that. It’s about rights. It’s about the fact that they’re part of communities that have contributed to the building of these institutions. At the same time, international students should be accorded the same respect, rights and treatments as any students does in terms of the experience of a university. That’s an interesting question. Should we treat all students the same? Well, on one level, obviously, it’s really important we do. On another level, there are some legitimate reasons why domestic students don’t necessarily pay the same as international students.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : We’re used to sort of thinking about them in terms of markets perhaps. There may be a consumer base abroad and a consumer base at home. But when you start thinking about them as citizens or as constituencies or as publics, a kind of another set of responsibilities and obligations pertains.
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: Students have always been consumers of education. Fees have been a part of university education almost since it began in its contemporary form. But equally, they’ve had other identities. And if we’re not explicit about that, we can fall into a trap where we think of them as just one or the other – as just the consumer. And that comes with it a whole lot of assumptions about what their agency is, how they’re able to act, what their responsibilities are, and indeed what our responsibilities – both as those within universities, but also as a community have to those students. So as soon as we start thinking about international students as anything other than students first – irrespective of whether they’re consumers, irrespective of whether they’re citizens of different countries. We get to a really dangerous place because we don’t keep their education in full view. If we think about them just as consumers, we really run the risk of not thinking about all the other responsibilities we have.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : And many of them become citizens of Australia, number one. And number two, as citizens of other polities, there’s a real sort of pseudo diplomatic function that’s become crucial.
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: Absolutely.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : I got a bit obsessed with this lately. Which is, what are the values and goals of our higher education system? Do you think it’s possible to say what the government’s sense of the goal of our education system is?
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: You can certainly see some of their goals. And they’re pretty explicit about it. Is that they really want the higher education system as it’s publicly supported, to be about providing people with the skills and experience and education to get them into the employment market. And that’s their priority. And that’s where they think that public funds need to be directed. But it’s a hard question to ask of any government, of anybody to say, you know, what is the absolute goal of these institutions? Part of what we ask them to do is be on the edge. Right. They are pushing the limits. They’re generating new knowledge and there needs to be trust in their ability to do that. So there’s always going to be a tension about exactly what their roles are. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to do it and change and reflect community opinion. That said, there does need to be a debate in Australia about what we want our universities to do. We don’t just want them to be skills factories. We obviously want them to be more than that. Universities all around the world are more than that. The question becomes, how much public resources should we devote to the different activities we ask universities to do?
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : Which brings us back to where we started and the thorny issue of funding and where it should come from. But is that the only question at play for governments and for publics when it comes to universities? I asked Gwil Croucher if there weren’t other ways we might think about the relationship between universities, the state and society.
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: So if we’re thinking about the future of higher education, we’ve got some really important decisions to make in Australia. The first is about how much we want government specifically to control our university system. Or how much we want it controlled by the people that are tasked with running it. And the other decision we have to make is how much we want university to be supported through public subsidy versus how much we want students directly to pay. And those both have implications. If we want a university system, where students don’t pay anything up front, that’s quite expensive. And we’ve got to ask, you know, whether that’s really fair for those that don’t want to attend university. If we want universities that are very tightly controlled by government, we have to ask what we’re going to lose.
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: So if you have this axis where on the vertical you have more or less direct government control, and if you have on the horizontal, more or less direct government subsidy, we can think about this having some pretty significant consequences. If we have universities that have significant government control and also significant direct government subsidy, then that really allows governments and politicians to decide what it is that these institutions should do. We take part of the student decision out of it. We take part of the decision from those that run universities. We may end up with institutions that are asked only to teach and do no research. Equally, if institutions have less government control and less direct government subsidy, then we may end up with universities that look very much like private for profit institutions.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : You might end up with fee deregulation completely.
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: Absolutely. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. If we think we can trust universities to constrain fees.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : There are consequences in both those circumstances of universities facing the kind of adversity that we see them facing at the moment. So you might see with more government control and more government funding, forced mergers. And I guess with less government control and less direct public revenue, you might see institutions being allowed to collapse by government. Which doesn’t strike me as a particular good. So what about more student contribution and more government control? What would that look like?
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: So if we had a system where there was less government control but more direct government subsidies, we would have some quite strong and autonomous institutions. Well, there might be really strong advantages to having universities that were allowed to be very autonomous – as less government control and there was a big direct government subsidy. Probably wouldn’t be politically sustainable because now these institutions wouldn’t necessarily be as answerable to governments as they would demand.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : And what about less subsidy and more government control?
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: In some ways that is a system that Australia has been moving towards over time. As fees get higher and higher, we’ll have to see what the limit of that is. But it does put universities and government in a very difficult position because where students are directly paying quite high fees, then they start to think differently about their education and what they demand of it. And you know, may have expectations that can’t be met. It’s not as simple as having institutions that are fully government funded and that are completely autonomous without any government control. There are downsides to having gone out to all of these quadrants. And the sustainable institutions we want are not necessarily free to students. They may want students to pay fees because that brings with it certain responsibilities. We don’t want institutions that are completely unaccountable to the public and the government. But at the same time, we want them to have enough autonomy to be able to do the really complicated job we ask them to do in Australian society. Key then is thinking about who gets to set the settings.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : That’s the role of policy makers and our politicians. But there have been different ways that governance structure has been organised across the history of the 20th century in Australia and elsewhere. You know, there was a time when there was a thing called the Universities Grants Commission and governments made allocations to it and then it decided how those funds were distributed. And it didn’t do so through competition or through a pseudo pseudo market. It did so by what? Visits to institutions?
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: And so the University Grants Commission, as you point out, in the UK was like the Australian Universities Commission here. And that was very much a negotiation between universities and the bodies about what they would offer. That was arm’s length from ministerial control. They were there to have a whole view of the system and they were one step removed from the minister. Now, this doesn’t mean that they always operated perfectly, but it’s a very different model than having a minister directly deciding where to allocate funding to universities.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : And it’s a very different model than universities competing amongst themselves to meet terms set by the minister.
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: It’s thinking about a system much more holistically. Having universities competing assumes that we can have a market that can operate efficiently.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : I want to challenge this notion of competition a little bit because it brings with it a sort of logic with growth and extracting value at some level. And that you can extract more and more value either from individuals or from a kind of system that’s maximized in some way. And I just wonder if that is the end that we really need to be shooting for? When you take out the kind of logic of competition you get perhaps a logic of service and you can still argue about who should be served and what the priorities around that are. But it’s attending to a community that is functioning within limits rather than one that’s trying to kind of expand and extend those limits. It’s bringing me back to this goal that if if our point is to enlarge people’s capabilities, to be healthy, empowered and creative – within certain environmental limits, then competition is not a necessary or even ideal way to achieve that goal.
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: This is also surely about priorities as well. If universities compete first and foremost, then that will have significant consequences. But if they seek to serve first and foremost, then that will have other consequences that perhaps are much more attractive and important to meet these kinds of goals. The future of Australian universities is clearly going to be determined by that question of trust. If the public and communities can’t trust the institutions, then their future is going to be bleak.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : I mean, that’s such a big question much more broadly, isn’t it? It doesn’t pertain just to universities.
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: How can they be trusted by their communities? Who are their communities? Well, those communities are students, their potential students, their local city, town, region, the nation. But all of those communities have to have a say and they all have to be balanced.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : The thing is having a say, right? I mean, nominally, they do all have a say, but some of them have a much louder microphone than others and much deeper pockets than others. And one of the publics we’re talking about is industry. It’s employers. But they’re resourced to speak in a way that those who sit outside the structures that enable people to lobby are just not. And so balancing those different voices of the public, is there a sense in which we can’t just leave that up to the free flow of competition in the market? I mean, who should get to set the settings of higher education?
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: One of the most important things about the Australian Universities Commission and some of its later forms was that it could be an advocate for all the different communities that the universities were to serve. Now, these bodies were able to balance off the different interests and communities that the universities were there to serve. And there’s a strong argument for creating a body that can really be an advocate for all the different communities.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : It’s really generative that idea. What would it look like to have a kind of Australian Universities Commission that had a consultative body – or even a governing body – that had on it representatives of the different constituencies of the public. That might be selected by random ballot like jury service. I mean, this is that kind of way of thinking about how you embed institutions in society – in a way we kind of haven’t really seen. What we hear in public is a lot of kind of twiddling of these knobs of government subsidy or government control. But when you rethink what the settings are and how they governed and who gets to say, then perhaps the whole thing looks different.
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: So the key thing here is that if we’re looking for explicit missions, the explicit mission is to balance off the different interests of the communities. And you need to do that in a really structured way. Things like citizens assemblies and other forms of deliberative democratic action rely on really structured forms of communication to make sure that everybody’s voice can be heard.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : Is this a viable way we might govern the public in Australia and particularly public education?
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: Structured ways that you can make sure that voices are heard is really important in any public activity and super important for public institutions.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : I feel like we’ve traveled a long way here, but we’ve arrived at a place that is fundamentally about thinking through how you determine what the good is. For whom.
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: And the reason that we’ve ended up in that place is because there’s not a right answer to how much students pay. It really comes down to what serves the different communities and what those different communities want.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : And let’s not underestimate how big a revolution that is, because that sentence you just said, it didn’t use a market sort of set of metaphors. It used an embedded and citizenship set of metaphors. And I think those are some of the concepts that are lacking from our public discussion about universities. They’re absolutely there because these are all political framings. But they’re not articulated. They’re not drawn up to the surface. How do we get there? How do we get to a place where we get the governance right? What’s the mechanism? What’s the theory of change to bringing about governance change?
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: So I guess it’s beholden on all of us in universities to advocate for them as institutions that should be owned by the Australian and other publics.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : It seems that the debate we’re in at the moment is entirely conducted within the terms of the current settings. And we want different settings. Then that needs to be our conversation – rather than twiddling the knobs, which is what’s happening.
DR GWILYM CROUCHER: Every conversation needs to start with talking about what it is that universities can do for their communities rather than what it is communities can do for the universities.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : It might be hard to look beyond the immediate crisis confronting universities at the moment. Hard to look beyond the day to day reality of trying to teach online and keep the show going at home. But if we care about Australia’s universities, it’s absolutely crucial that we do. The explosive and disruptive implications of COVID-19 may have been unforeseen. But the consequences it has had for universities in Australia and for those who work in them, they were not inevitable. They are being shaped by active decisions taken by governments and university leaders who in turn are influenced by lobbying from different interest groups – who are pursuing agendas laid out long before we’d ever heard of the virus. The settings we are being presented with now are not the only alternatives available. This is not the end of the story.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : This country is our common home. For better or for worse, we must live in it together. What kind of Australia do we want? How about a society which sustains and cares for each of us through our individual joys and hardships, because together we sustain and care for it? How about an economy that serves society rather than the other way round? Providing meaningful jobs and respecting the planet. For universities in Australia and all who rely on them, which is all of us, the consequences of COVID-19 and the government’s reaction to it are only just beginning to unfold. This is going to be a long road and I suspect there will be some depressing and dispiriting days ahead. So remember this, whatever happens with Minister Tehan’s proposals, universities will remain crucial social institutions and the conversation about what they should be and who they should serve in these, our times, is not one that will end with the latest round of proposals. In fact, it’s a conversation that’s been going on ever since the university began.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : This is the final episode in this series, but it won’t be the last you hear from me. So don’t delete The New Social Contract from your idevice just yet. If you’ve been here for the whole ride. Thank you. And please take a minute to rate or review us on Apple Podcasts. If you’ve just joined, well, welcome. There are eight other episodes for you to enjoy. Launching and producing this series from the midst of lockdown has been a mammoth undertaking. And I would like to sincerely thank all The New Social Contract podcast guests and contributors. Thanks also go to our media partner, The Conversation and all our Conversation article collaborators. You can read each of the linked articles on the Conversation website. And most of all, thanks go to The New Social Contract podcast team. They’ve all been working remotely and believe it or not, some of them have not even met. Behind each episode are late nights and multiple takes and patient rescripting that are a testimony to their talent, hard work and craft.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : The New Social Contract was made by Impact Studios, an audio production house at the University of Technology Sydney that combines audio storytelling with academic research. Thanks to Impact Studios executive producer Emma Lancaster, Impact Studios digital communications manager Ben Vozzo, audio producer Allison Chan, journalist and researcher Kathy Marks, and sound engineer Adrian Walton. I’m your host, Tamson Piestch. Thanks for joining me and thanks for listening to The New Social Contract. Although the series is ending, you can continue the conversation on Twitter. Follow us @TNSCpod. Or send us an email to let us know what you think. Email email@example.com.
MALE VOICE OVER: The New Social Contract is a podcast series made by Impact Studios at the University of Technology Sydney. The production team live on the lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation whose lands were never ceded.
Higher education leaders and policy makers in Australia are facing a lot of hard decisions right now.
The New Social Contract Podcast spoke with UTS Vice-Chancellor Professor Attila Brungs and Shadow Minister for Education and Training Tanya Plibersek to find out their different perspectives on the purpose and role of universities in the 21st century.
There are lots of factors contributing to the uncertainty in the tertiary sector at present – will international students return? How much debt can be sustained? What will happen to research funding?
But one thing that would make it easier to act in the present, is a clear plan for what universities should do in the future. What are universities in Australia for? The answer to that question will shape the kind of system we get.
*Note: The interview with Vice-Chancellor Professor Attila Brungs took place on Tuesday June 9 2020.
The interview with Tanya Plibersek, Shadow Minister for Education and Training took place on Tuesday June 16 2020.
Who is it that makes up the constituencies of a 21st century university? And what should different sections of the public be demanding from those institutions?
These questions go to the core of higher education’s purpose. Do universities create communities – or do communities create universities? And why might we be seeing the answers to these questions change?
Thanks to The New Social Contract episode six guests:
What kinds of work will we be doing in 2040? What industries will still be going strong and which will have fallen away?
The training and education we need now will depend on the kinds of work – the industries and services – around which, as a nation we want to build our economy and society.
Australia is facing possibly the worst economic downturn in its history. So how should that sobering prospect reshape the relationship between universities, government and society – including industry?
Thanks to The New Social Contract episode five guests
The news grabs and additional audio in this episode of The New Social Contract podcast came from the following sites:
‘From Back in Black to recession’, reported on AM, ABC, June 4, 2020.
’The recession we couldn’t avoid’ on RN Breakfast with Fran Kelly, Abc, June 4, 2020.
‘Treasurer Josh Frydenberg says Australia has officially entered recession’ from ABC News, June 2 2020.
‘Treasurer warns the worst is yet to come as Australia’s economy enters recession’ from ABC News, June 3 2020.
The Paris Riots of 1968 ‘French students again clash with riot police, Paris, France’, published by British Pathe on Youtube.
‘The May 1968 protests that paralysed France’, published on Witness, by the BBC.
‘May 1968 Paris Riots’ on The History Hour, published by the BBC.