The simple answer is that I think it’s time. It’s been 30 years since the unified university system was brought into being by the federal government, through what were known as the Dawkins Reforms. Many institutions responded to that new set of circumstances. Now is a good time to step back and look again at what the goals of post-compulsory education are, and how might those goals best be met.
I see the sector evolving through planned processes to something much more diverse. I think Glyn Davis said it well: the unified system has tended towards a uniform system. More diversity, I believe, can best meet the full needs of society. Many other countries and many other states within countries have achieved a more structured diversity of institutions than Australia now has.
That diversity could be realised through at least four quite different types of institution:
Each type of institution can be very valuable to society, each in a very different way. My concern is that Australia has lost that diversity to a significant degree, and has as a consequence lost many potential benefits.
With what I see as one set of incentives and one set of rewards for many institutions from the centre, the federal government, it’s been natural that universities have tended towards uniformity.
It would be good to structure different and effective rewards, through different governance systems, so that post-compulsory education can become less uniform, more diverse.
I believe that diversity can be rationally planned, if there's an agreement on benefits and needs among institutions.
It does appear that in Australia, perhaps more than anywhere else at the moment, the research university degree is seen as an essential for a happy and productive working life. It’s clearly not, because in many other societies there are quite different post-compulsory outcomes that are highly valued.
I had a very enlightening experience for four years in the United Arab Emirates, where the leadership made major and focused investments in a network of higher colleges of technology. They knew they needed many people with high technical skill and capability to make society work, and chose to invest as much in that area, in a focused way, as they also did in research universities. Graduates of those colleges were very proud of the skills they had developed. The leadership also encouraged and supported the development of a very diverse private higher education sector, much of which wasn't research-focused.
I also had very positive experiences throughout many years in California, where the 23 state universities don't have a research mission. Nor does the extensive network of community colleges. They produce the workforce that make the economy function, and are very much workforce and employment-focused. I didn’t see in that society any anti-intellectual pushback against colleges or universities, because that wasn't what much of the post-compulsory sector saw itself as doing. Most institutions were instead working hard to help create the full spectrum of capabilities needed for a successfully functional society.
We may well have created that pushback problem in Australia ourselves, through the present approach to post-compulsory education. Australia appears to have put most of its eggs in the research-intensive basket three decades ago. An anti-intellectual sentiment is a predictable response to that. We need much more than that set of skills, valuable as they are, to make a society work well.
Making a cultural shift will be a significant challenge. It will require leadership. There would need to be a change in social expectations and social values, in what is truly valued. That can be done, I think.
One of the most inspiring speeches that I heard during my years in California was by the head of the state university system, saying: “We are so proud of the fact that we don’t have medical schools or PhD programs. Instead, we focus on creating the people and skills that make society work.” The students who chose those institutions were proud of being there, were proud of graduating from them.
Making a cultural shift will be a significant challenge. It will require leadership. There would need to be a change in social expectations and social values, in what is truly valued.
The community college system also clearly states their pride in the fact that anybody at any stage of life can, whatever their means, can come to them to improve their workplace skills, or to pursue any other interests, practical or intellectual. Like the state universities, they're specialised teaching and service institutions, focused on social value. They have the additional great feature, most notably in California, of well-structured academic articulation with the other two public post-compulsory sectors, creating both efficiency and outstanding effectiveness. Transfer students from community colleges there into the research-intensives [and they] outperform freshman admits academically – something not widely publicised, but very significant.
A change away from Australia’s present, overwhelming research-intensive focus would need clear vision, strong leadership and powerful advocacy. It would obviously not be a simple thing to do. I think the Monash Commission can contribute to each of vision, leadership and advocacy – a strong voice articulating the great value to society of the other; more diverse pathways may well be heard and understood.
I followed a quite orthodox pathway initially. I knew, or thought I knew, what I wanted to do when I finished high school. I wanted to go directly into a profession, and I chose dentistry. Midway through my undergraduate course I decided I wanted to teach and conduct research, in addition to caring for patients. I was able to pursue a PhD, and those two paths of preparation equipped me pretty well for much of the working life that I've since enjoyed.
I still get great satisfaction from knowing the students that I help to educate and train will care for people well, that the burden of disease will be less, and patients will lead happy and productive lives in other ways because they won’t be impeded by poor health.
I was then fortunate to be able to gain experience over two decades in academic leadership and administration at both the individual institution and at system levels. I enjoy very much helping individual universities to function as well as they can. What they do is very valuable for society. I'm also fascinated by the effectiveness of well-designed, managed and governed university systems. I've been privileged to work in three of them. They can be very effective, and efficient, in helping to develop and maintain economies, helping to keep both societies and individuals healthy and productive.
As long as there's willingness to consider a diversity of approaches, I don’t see anything as being structurally missing. The diversity of institutions and structures behind them that exist around the world provides valuable examples. The German system is very different from the American, and the American is very different from the Chinese, and so on. I think that's a very good thing. People everywhere are concerned about making sure we have really good architects and very good accountants and good surgeons and nuclear technicians, all at reasonable cost. I know that Australia is striving to achieve that, too, and that’s what appealed to me about contributing to the work of the Monash Commission.
There can be a more rational development of more diverse systems of post-compulsory education in Australia, I suggest at the state level. The administrative and financial structures of the states can be used well in rational balance with the federal. As I see it, the states in Australia largely backed away from strong, across-the-board engagement in post-compulsory education when the federal government took financial responsibility both for direct university funding and for tuition loan programs. Australian states might well now play a much stronger role to good effect.