A few weeks ago University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence astonished the audience at a National Tertiary Education Union forum by claiming to be a supporter of free university education. When Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon, a fellow panellist, pointed out what everyone in the room knew — that Spence had been lobbying energetically in support of the government’s moves to allow universities to charge students for their degrees — he supplied the following rationale for this apparent cognitive dissonance: successive governments had failed to resource universities sufficiently, and so additional revenue was needed. In this situation it was better to have universities set the price for degrees than governments.

Most university vice-chancellors now support, openly or tacitly, a free market in education, which has allowed Education Minister Christopher Pyne to claim that universities support the government’s higher education package. This is a fallacy. Vice-chancellors might represent universities in a formal sense, but they are not representative of the university communities, which by their nature are obstreperous. This is clear from the groundswell of dissent from students and staff and the emergence of groups like the National Alliance for the Public University, launched this week.

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What distinguishes universities from the private sector is that they trade in ideas and are supposed to grant academics the freedom to speak without political, ecclesiastical or bureaucratic censorship. This is the essence of a secular liberal education. So while the modern universities may look like corporations in being run by highly paid (and rapidly growing) managerial elites, those of us who teach and research tend to view these elites as being grafted on top of the diverse communities of scholars who make up the real university.

To become a manager in the neo-liberal university means entering a Faustian pact with two key clauses. Firstly, that to speak the truth is less important than to promote the university brand. Pyne was quoted as saying: “Each university is responsible for its own governance, but universities should avoid needless controversies that damage their reputation [and] also make Australia look less respectable to our potential international student market.” In other words, academic freedom is all very well, but if universities cannot muzzle the extremists in their ranks they risk staining their image and losing revenue streams.

“Where once the HSC was sufficient to get you a secure, reasonably well-paid job, now even an undergraduate degree can be far from sufficient, particularly for those who … lack the family influence to open career doors for them.”

University managers hear these messages loud and clear. Most of them are technocrats — you can count the VCs with arts degrees on the fingers of one hand, with MBAs thick on the ground — and all are highly sensitive to market forces. They run huge organisations — mine has a $650 million turnover — vulnerable, like all knowledge economy players, to changing tastes and market whims. Most view critical social and cultural thinking as at best a necessary evil. This does not augur well for academic freedom if universities become more dependent on private funding.

The second requirement is that university managers accept the necessity to act according to pragmatism rather than principle, in the manner of Spence. This means that many VCs who believe in free education are supporting deregulation in the belief that at least some version of deregulation/fee setting is inevitable, notwithstanding the current opposition of both Labor and many crossbenchers. The one vocal opponent, Stephen Parker,who heads the University of Canberra, is cast as a hopeless idealist who is excluding himself from the conversation by refusing to assimilate to the political reality.

But is he? The public backlash against higher education reform suggests universities have become a mass concern in a way that they never were in the past. Structural economic change has generated the need for a mass post-school education system if we are to avoid the levels of youth unemployment and associated social unrest experienced in parts of Europe. So, while all the talk in the debate around deregulation has been of the private economic benefits that degree holders obtain, these are less important than the public benefits that accrue to a society from having its youth studying. There is little doubt that the current proposal will erode participation rates, notwithstanding the scholarships that top-tier universities are promising to students from low socio-economic backgrounds.

And it is not at all clear that university education will guarantee the sorts of private benefits that accrued in the past. In a recent opinion piece in The Sydney Morning Herald the Chancellor of my university, Peter Shergold, argued that “armed with a degree … graduates have a world of career options opened to them… [with] higher lifetime earnings”. This might have been the case for those of us who got our degrees in the ’70s and ’80s, but, given the changed state of Western economies, it is wrong to extrapolate from that to make optimistic projections about the current generation. Where once the HSC was sufficient to get you a secure, reasonably well-paid job, now even an undergraduate degree can be far from sufficient, particularly for those who, like most of the students at the University of Western Sydney, lack the family influence to open career doors for them.

This “bracket creep” in credentials means that for most there is little alternative to three years of post-school study. So perhaps we should view post-school education as effectively an extension of compulsory education to year 15. There is no suggestion that we should charge families the market price to send their children to government high schools, so why should the first three years of university be any different? Why are we as a nation contemplating moves to load more debt on those least able to pay? Perhaps the Palmer United Party, which has expressed a wish to dismantle the HECS system, is ahead of the game.


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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