(This blog was originally posted through my day-job in Dec 2012 but I am re-posting it here)
Australia was the first place I visited as part of my tour of SEAsia to promote the Asia Pacific edition of Blue Skies. I wondered what higher education would look like in a country with such low population density (c.23m people at 3 people per square mile vs c. 62m people at 256 people per square mile in the UK) and what this might mean for online distance learning, with some institutions pursuing just such a strategy. It’s a highly successful but relatively smaller sector, with only 40 universities (37 public and 3 private not-for-profits) versus c. 140 in the UK. There are also fewer students, with a total of c. 1.2m compared to c. 2.5m in the UK. As is found here there are a range of institutions with the well-known and research-intensive ‘Group of Eight’ at one end of the spectrum and a handful of less-reputable and sometimes struggling universities at the other. The TAFE (Technical and Further Education) sector of colleges tends not to actually teach higher education, as is increasingly the case in the UK but is well regarded and ambitious, often recruiting internationally. Three things in particular struck me during my short stay; the apparent appetite for marketisation, the ability to capitalise on the UK’s recent immigration woes and a lack of positive education outcomes from recent mineral wealth.
I presented in Melbourne on future trends in HE at a roundtable of senior university leaders, concluding that the sector needs a coherent narrative that persuades both government and the public to invest more. One of the attendees, who is number two at a Group of Eight university, immediately disagreed – explaining that their institution was increasingly indifferent to public funding. Their business school currently only draws 7% of its income from the government and more and more this is not seen to be ‘worth the hassle’. Others around the table agreed, apparently keen for market freedoms free of government involvement. Similarly, when I highlighted recent grass-roots movements in the UK such as the Campaign for a Public University and the Council for the Defence of British Universities delegates shook their heads, saying nothing was being lost by recent changes. Now obviously this wasn’t a representative sample of Australian academics or university leaders but I was still surprised at the unanimity.
Competing for international students
It already seems clear that Canada and Australia are two of the most ambitious and strategic recruiters of international students, making up about 22% of the Australian student body. This was borne out when I asked about perceptions of recent incidents in the UK with the Border Agency and violence towards foreign students. Everybody around the table seemed to smile and exchange glances while one explained that they are ‘very well positioned’ to gain from such news. Worrying stuff given recent rumours of another English university being made an example of.
Although not everybody concurs I have now heard from a few senior Australians, both in government and universities that by some measures, the public finance benefits from their astronomic mineral wealth have already been spent. Whether this is true or not I wonder if more could be done to invest in education that turns all that financial capital into improved human capital, something many Middle Eastern nations are actively pursuing. Apparently just eight individuals will benefit from the bulk of this wealth to become the richest men (and they are of course all men) in the world. I wondered if at least a few of them couldn’t be persuaded to set up educational foundations akin to the efforts by Gates, Buffet and Clinton – helping to carve their names in history. In fact the situation might get worse as the high wages offered for some manual mining jobs are encouraging many young people to skip university all together and opt to start their career with a ‘fly-in fly-out’ role driving a truck or operating heavy machinery, not a challenge the UK sector has to face.