We need the Monash Commission because Australia is coming to a decision point. It's succeeded very well with a particular model of what a university is, but there has recently been a lot of commentary about whether that model can continue in precisely the same way for every university in Australia and whether that really serves the people who aren’t at university that well. I think for that reason this is a very good time to be addressing some of these issues.
It’s worth noting that parts of post-compulsory education in Australia are doing very well. It’s important not to make out that it's all doom and disaster, because it’s not.
At the same time, all systems can be better, and I think there are improvements that could be made. The point of the Commission is to actually do some research to work out what those could be, and I wouldn’t like to forecast that in advance of the actual process. I would expect that some of the matters that we might focus on might be the size of universities and the model for higher education. On the whole, Australia has followed one model, and as [University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor] Glyn Davis noted in his recent book, it may be that the sector needs more diversity.
In terms of the post-compulsory education sector more broadly, the question is around how we deliver for those people who need, say, technical education.
The system conspires to make that true. When I say the system, I mean that very broadly in the sense that parents, teachers, all sorts of people want to ensure their kids get into what they perceive is the very best institution. As they compete hard to make that happen, they then entrench those sorts of perceptions, and it’s very difficult to dislodge them. I don’t know of many countries that have been very successful at doing that.
It's certainly not something that's going to happen overnight. No policy or piece of legislation will suddenly, magically produce an alternative perception. Too many people have too much invested in a hierarchy.
Going to university was very important to me. Without that opportunity I would never have been able to do any of the things that I've done subsequently. In that sense it's been the starter for what I've have been able to achieve, and I think that's also true for a lot of other people. At the time when I was going to university, very few people went. That’s now changed, and we're in a mass higher education system. I think that people still need to think about what that means precisely, and we still have a way to go on that.
Before I went to university I worked for quite a time in factories, and that gave me a quite good sense of what the alternatives to university might be and what careers others were following. It made me strongly evangelical about making sure that very clever people without the opportunity to go to university, should they want to, should be able to have access to those opportunities.
I think there are a few issues that will need addressing – how many foreign students to take will be one. Both in the UK and in Australia, a lot of revenue comes from these students, but whether we want to be so exposed to just one market for income is something that, in my opinion, needs thinking through. There's a strong argument for considering increased diversification, although this could prove problematic.
I also think we need to consider linking up higher education with more general post-compulsory education. Practically every country in the world has problems with this, and it’s going to be a big job of work to get it right, just as it has been in many other countries.
From the outside, it seems like the biggest shift we could make would be to try to produce more diversity of approach in post-compulsory education. It seems to me that homogeneity after a particular point is dangerous, because if conditions change you then become very exposed.
There are elements of different systems around the world that we could certainly look at.
The United States has all sorts of issues with its system, but it does have a very great diversity of institutions, from the big state universities to the Ivy Leagues to the liberal arts colleges, which gives people more choice. Notwithstanding some of the other issues with the system there, I think diversity is something that the US does that, in part at least, is to be admired.
In Germany they're much better in some ways at technical education, and that’s important, too.
I think those two issues are the nub – diversity and technical education, and those two systems are the ones that I think do those the best.
It’s also really important, however, not to run down the Australian system, because it is, at the moment, educating a heck of a lot of people to a very good standard. There are, of course, some issues around it, but one shouldn’t simply run the whole system down. Compared to many other systems around the world, Australia’s looks pretty good.