City Standard

Bad education: Universities torn between wisdom and wealth

Farrin Foster
Jessica Clark
Lauren Bezzina

Australian universities are slowly turning into clones of each other – and in a time when we desperately need new thinking to kick-start a new economy, mass-manufactured degrees won’t cut it. But from amid the arguments about the sector, a glimmer of hope for the future could come from the past.

Every functional society has a university at its centre.

Inside university halls, striving to know the unknown is unencumbered by the political, social, financial and cultural barriers that face thinkers in the rest of society.

But now, more than ever before, universities are essential to Australia’s future prosperity. In 2017, we have more than just an aspirational and inspirational relationship to these institutions – we have a practical need for what they offer.

As we prepare for an involuntary yet unstoppable shift from being an economy of things – cars, minerals, wheat and wool – to becoming an economy of ideas, the one shining beacon that offers hope is the university.

These places will help us foster new ideas that can be sold to the world, massage young minds until they become the next Elon Musk, attract international students to invest in our economy, upskill our workforce so a dearth of unskilled jobs doesn’t also lead to a dearth of satisfying employment.

It’s unfortunate, then, that at precisely the moment we are turning to universities for stability, they are in turmoil.

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Statistics released by the Australian Government this year reveal a marked drop in the rate of students completing courses – about one in three university students has not achieved their degree six years after initiating study.

Perception of our universities is on the slide as well. The Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings – which is based on a survey of 10,000 academics across the globe – placed only three Australian universities in the top 100 globally in 2016, while there were five in that bracket in 2015.

And against that backdrop, Australia’s conversation about universities comprises mostly a set of screaming-pitch recriminations. Some of them are about funding, as the spectre of 2014’s federal budget proposal to deregulate fees still hangs in the air, while other dark mutterings name-check corporatisation or declining standards in research, education and teaching.

But there’s a reason that our universities are struggling to find a way forward even when we need them most.

It’s because we don’t really know what we want them to be.

Associate Professor Felix Patrikeeff

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