Follow the leader

Reclaiming Australia’s innovation tradition


There is no doubt they are facing significant and real challenges. Many of their buildings have been shuttered on and off in the last year. They have fewer staff and students than they did before the pandemic. By some estimates, 20,000 jobs were lost in 2020; others put the number higher. If this had happened in any other sector, we might have expected more than a muted response from politicians. There is discontent and more than a little trauma within academic and professional staff ranks. Much of the university workforce is employed on short-term and casual contracts. Universities’ relationships with governments and the public appear fraught. These are far from halcyon days.

There are many opinions about what it is that these institutions should and should not do – often about what has been lost or what has been missed. Some mornings it can seem that few people are happy with universities: not their students, not governments and not their own staff.

Yet it is hard to escape the fact that Australia’s universities are highly successful by many measures. It is not hyperbole to say the country has one of the better higher education systems around. Students have been consistently happy with the quality of education as measured by the national Student Experience Survey. Australia has been a popular destination for international students: at its peak, the country attracted an estimated 7 per cent of the total number of students travelling for their higher education. Many staff working in universities are remunerated highly compared with their peers internationally. On a per capita basis, Australian universities perform well in terms of the quantity and quality of the research they produce. Sometimes thought of as new, many of these universities are old by world standards, and they remain some of the biggest in terms of student numbers. Many in other countries envy what Australia has built during the past 171 years. To casually dismiss the successes requires some effort.

Reasonable minds can differ. But how can both these things be true at once? Have universities’ apparent achievements really been undone by eighteen months of a global pandemic? Or is something else going on? Have they been operating on borrowed time?

It can be hard to gain perspective on higher education. It’s easy for people to speak past each other when they are invested, or have personal experience of it, especially if they developed those opinions during their formative years. Universities are creations of collective imagination, as is any significant public institution, and they have a shifting relationship with all who claim some ownership over them. For some universities, their social licence is fragile. Take, for example, the Central European University in Budapest, where dictators have been overt in their distaste for the free enquiry the institution promotes. The Taliban have left no one guessing who they think should receive a higher education at Kabul University – at the risk of stating the obvious, this list does not include women.

For other universities, the strictures of the outside world seem to matter less. Harvard had an endowment of $41 billion in 2020, Yale $31 billion and Stanford $28 billion. Uganda’s 2021 GDP came in at $41 billion for that year. Harvard’s endowment is all it has in the bank, whereas Uganda’s measures a single year. But the former has 13,000 staff and 23,000 students. The latter is a country of 43.7 million people. Harvard shines bright as a north star for the ‘elite’.

Despite the rhetoric at times, these examples offer only limited lessons for Australia. Pausing on them for a moment highlights the fact that the country’s universities are not going to be fatally undermined by government, nor are they in a position where they can largely ignore those outside their gates. It doesn’t mean that there is not value in other comparisons. If we want to better understand how Australian universities now find themselves in an uncomfortable position, how recent developments fit together gives us a guide to why this might be the case.

Australian higher education is undergoing several adjustments at once. These are not new – the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified existing challenges rather than created new ones.


THE QUESTION OF what experience students can expect at an Australian university has become more prominent since the beginning of 2020. What ‘going to university’ is like has changed over time, but until recently much of the core experience remained consistent. Students largely expected education to be delivered in classrooms and labs on campus, and they anticipated that most of their fellow students would be Australian residents. So it went.

Increasingly, neither of these things is accurate. The pandemic has brought both changes into sharper relief.

Australia has had fee-paying international students for many decades, though their numbers remained small until recently. One in twenty enrolments in 1989 was an international student, with most studying at the larger and older universities. Within two decades, one in four students in Australian higher education was from overseas; by 2019 it was one in three, making the country one of the most internationalised in terms of its student make-up and university links with the rest of the world.

Australia’s position in 2019 as the third most popular destination behind only the United States and the UK was encouraged by decades of government policies and deliberate strategy from university leaders. From the 1980s universities sought students from countries in Asia and the Pacific region as well as from Europe and the Americas. Prior to the pandemic, Australian higher education enrolled more than 400,000 international students, most studying at the public universities. It says a lot that so many international students have been willing to come here; most had other options.

Australia has been lucky: viewed as safe and sunny, we have benefitted from being an English-speaking nation with a high-quality education system in the neighbourhood of many Asian countries where international study is popular. At times there has been the added incentive of generous post- study immigration policies. As international students came to prominence on campuses and in the CBDs of Sydney and Melbourne, they introduced an important new chapter of multiculturalism in Australia. But it’s not lost on many international students that the discussion about their presence has been framed in terms of the fees they pay, with some rightly feeling like they are treated as the proverbial ‘cash cow’.

Can Australia continue its run of luck with international education? There are legitimate questions around whether students have been given adequate support and whether the quality of their education has suffered. There are signs students are choosing other destinations, such as Canada and the UK. This has not been helped by some missteps. Several universities were slow to act in March 2020, with their initial support for international students manifestly poor. The Prime Minister suggested in April 2020 that for international students it was ‘time to go home’. Australia’s treatment of international students at the onset of the pandemic would not pass the pub test, even far from the inner city.

The eventual extension of government disaster payments to international students and the significant lengths universities eventually went to in support of their international cohorts much better reflect how Australia aspires to carry itself in times of crisis.

It’s easy to slip into a vernacular that positions international education as a commodity like any other, forgetting the significant responsibility Australia has when it invites people from overseas to spend some of their most important and formative years far from their home. Recognising the needs of students when they come from very different backgrounds, experiences and cultures cannot easily be dismissed. Emphasising the individual responsibility of international students in choosing to come to Australia is one thing; it is another to take advantage of their circumstance and motivations. Making a sustainable future for international education in Australia means addressing this challenge.

As well as hosting many more international students in recent years, the ways in which many students learn has also been changing. While different technologies in support of education were already ubiquitous when the pandemic struck, when campuses closed around the world in 2020, most higher education institutions moved their delivery fully online.

All Australian universities have sophisticated learning management systems that provide teaching resources and support administrative functions. The days of the physical ‘reading brick’ and textbook are largely gone. Universities often communicate with their students by social media, often a faster and more reliable way to reach students than email. Many students take their degree wholly online and for some institutions, such as the University of New England, this has been true of most enrolments for a while now.

Nonetheless, prior to March 2020, most undergraduate students experienced their higher education as face-to-face lectures, tutorials, laboratories and seminars. That this changed in a matter of weeks was a truly impressive effort in its speed and scale. Many academics had never taught online before 2020. A survey of Irish academics found 70 per cent had never taught online prior to the pandemic. Australia may not have been that different.

Early predictions that the online revolution was finally here now seem a little hasty in 2022. Most students are clear that they want much of what being on campus can offer. What they expect out of their education does not always translate well to the online environment. The initial promises (circa 2012) that massive open online courses would replace the need for campuses have not so far come true.

The issue here is not whether there is an important role for online education, nor that what students want out of their ‘campus experience’ cannot be delivered in other ways. Rather it is that we do not yet know the balance between what students expect and how the different elements of an education can be reimagined without the physical location. Many of the motivations for study – such as future employment, intrinsic interest, finding a sense of self or purpose, social experience or the search for a partner – are not easily unbound from campuses. Working out how students can seek and receive a combination of these things without physical proximity is the next great challenge.

Universities are focused on these issues – what choice do they have? – but this is a work in progress, and much more will need to be done if they are to meet the expectations of students and their families, communities and employers. A gap remains between universities and how they are viewed by many in the community and, importantly, by political leaders, even though a significant proportion of the population now experience universities directly.


IN AUSTRALIA IN May 2020, 52.3 per cent of women and 41.1 per cent of men aged between thirty-five and thirty-nine had a bachelor’s degree. This puts the country in the group with the highest per capita attainment rates, although Australia’s performance here is helped by a high number of recent immigrants with tertiary qualifications.

Universities Australia, the sector’s peak body, found a few years ago that these institutions are widely supported and that 90 per cent of people want their children or the children of someone they know to attend university. Yet Australians have long had an uneasy relationship with their universities. Sometimes this is benign, at other moments less so. Many Australians do not seem to feel they have much ownership of the institutions they help to fund to teach students and produce research. They are consistently a low priority at the ballot box.

There are even signs of some community dissatisfaction: opinion surveys show some support for reducing government higher education spending. One survey found almost a third of respondents thought universities would be better run by the private sector. While such findings should be taken with a pinch of salt, they are perhaps not encouraging.

In part, this may speak to the fact that Australian universities are not always embedded in their communities; there is a distance between them and their neighbours. This does not have to be the case. Take college football in the US, for example. It is ubiquitous. Its popularity is undeniable. And it links towns and cities across the country to their local university. Even if your interest in football is only fleeting (or non-existent), it’s hard not to get caught up in the enthusiasm of ‘game day’ on campus, which brings together many from the wider community alongside students and staff. Australia has no real equivalent to this relationship between those inside and outside the grounds.

There is also a question around how Australian universities are seen to serve their communities. Again, it is worth pausing for a moment on an example from the US: its 109 ‘land-grant’ universities and colleges, which were funded through federal grants of land to the states from the late nineteenth century onwards. This system includes public institutions that are now some of the world’s most prominent and highly ranked, such as the University of California and Texas A&M University. One thing that distinguishes the land-grant institutions is their underpinning in an explicit public service mission. While there is some legitimate criticism of the commitment of land-grant institutions to this tradition of service, it remains the recognisable feature of these universities and colleges and is claimed as central to their purpose, operation and organisation.

The land-grant institutions, established through the Morrill Act in 1862, were intended to ‘promote the liberal and practical education’ through what is often termed ‘extension’, such as bringing agricultural research findings to the people who could put them into practice – there are now 3,000 local committees and forums that make up the Cooperative Extension System.

But they went further, and many institutions were tasked with diverse forms of education. For example, one land-grant university, the University of California, Davis, now has a system of different clinics run by its students, including legal (prisons/civil rights), medical (specialising in serving minority and at-risk communities) and veterinary (agricultural), that serve the local Davis community and surrounding areas in Northern California.

At its best this service is a tangible activity grounded in community and forms one element of a wider tradition of public education in the US. Despite occasional controversy, the land-grant institutions continue to be recognised as institutions that should serve.

This is not the Australian model, not least because much of the service that is equivalent to that provided by land-grant institutions comes to Australian citizens through different means. Australia’s universities have long been seen as useful and often practical, but this is not quite the same as being seen to serve. To demand that Australian universities emulate the modes of the land-grant colleges ignores their history and their social settlement. After the first universities were established in Australia, they soon came to concentrate on educating professionals, which has remained a focus since.

However, if Australian universities have few credible answers when asked how they do serve, it raises the question of whether there is something missing in their relationship with their communities. Perhaps this affects how much of a priority they are for the public?

The relationship between universities and governments is different. Although Australian governments have never truly neglected their universities – they cost too much to be ignored – they are not always enthusiastic supporters, and on occasion they have been hostile.

The Australian government is still the largest contributor to the cost of running universities. In 2019 universities received almost $12 billion in Australian government grants, with fees from domestic students providing close to another $7 billion. Fees from international students provided $10 billion.

When the border shut and much of the country was locked down in 2020, universities worried they were in trouble. Serious trouble. Would future years mean the disappearance of such a large proportion of their revenue base? The Australian government sent some strong signals in the face of this potential crisis. International students would not be treated differently to other foreign nationals travelling to Australia for the purpose of tourism or business. The JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme would not be extended to universities, with the rules amended several times to reduce the chance they would qualify. JobKeeper was likely not the best means to provide short- term support if universities needed it, but that is not really the point. When the government did announce significant temporary relief in 2020, near $1.5 billion, it was to support the research system and enable universities to offer short courses.

In the face of universities’ growing predicament, the government unveiled the Job-ready Graduates Package of policies in June 2020. This proposed to change the funding arrangements for teaching and to modify various requirements attached to funding eligibility. The government’s stated intention for the proposals was to change the way public funding is provided to public universities. The government announced that 27,000 ‘extra’ domestic places would be created by 2021, with a growth in subsequent years, to meet future demand for higher education and support economic growth and skills needs. A discussion paper issued alongside the announcement of the policy stated that it would increase the share the government paid for courses that ‘produce higher public returns or which contribute to identified national priorities’.

The most prominent proposal was that the government would change the balance between public and student contributions for some subjects. Crucially, the government changed the subsidy for some areas, such as humanities, to significantly increase the proportion students contribute. The Job-ready Graduates policies have made the funding system even more messy and confused. There is much that a future government in Canberra will need to clean up.

Whether done consciously or not, the Morrison government’s recent actions show that it is leaving the universities to the whims of the market. Universities have long been afforded a high degree of autonomy – the price of which, it seems now, is that they are on their own.

Of course, it was largely acting on their own through which they built the international market, with all the benefits and consequences that has brought.


AUSTRALIAN UNIVERSITIES CLEARLY benefitted as ever greater numbers of international students came through their doors. Most paid significant tuition, which has had wide-ranging effects on the institutions’ operations. For some this created a ‘virtuous circle’ where they were able to invest in research with the fee income, which led to better international rankings, which in turn attracted international students, which funded more research. This bounty didn’t just go towards research – it also helped replace capital stock and facilities, support programs and generally ‘grow the pie’.

International students are sometimes portrayed as taking the places of Australian students. This is wrong; availability of domestic places is much more dependent on government policy. Importantly, the fees international students contribute have benefitted everyone in Australia, including those outside universities. Tertiary education was until recently the third-largest export for the country. But people could be forgiven for not knowing that, as it has seemed an easy fact for governments and others with powerful interests to quietly ignore. Perhaps it doesn’t fit well with how some groups in Australia see the country?

At the same time as international enrolment grew, so did domestic enrolments. Universities doubled in size in only a few decades. Change of this pace is confronting for any sector of the economy. Remaining efficient through such growth has been a challenge – it’s easy to ask whether, for example, a new building on campus is truly needed to deliver quality education. There is room for efficiency gains. It is left to the shills, and at times even more moderate voices within universities, to claim that universities have always been prudent with their expenditure. Given the scale and complexity of their task – educating a nation and delivering research – it’s equally easy to dismiss how impressively productive these institutions are. Many equivalent-sized private corporations would not meet the bar set for public universities.

With such growth, internal imbalances have arisen. They are now on display for all to see, including at the Senate Select Committee on Job Security – with submissions to the committee showing examples of groups of university staff ‘in insecure work’, either as casuals or on fixed-term contracts. While many Australian university staff are well remunerated by international standards, universities clearly rely on an army of those on casual contracts who are less well paid.

The proportion of managers and other highly paid staff at universities has also grown. While it is more complex than discovering there are now ‘more bosses and less doers’, this is at least partly accurate. It also reflects the need for many specialists who do not fit traditional academic employment definitions and would once have been considered to do a type of ‘academic’ work, such as the many professionals who design online delivery in collaboration with academics.

University employment can be very fulfilling, and while until recently it has excluded many who were the most capable (professorial ranks are still disproportionately male and white, and this is only changing slowly), these institutions are full of good people who care about the quality of the education students receive and the research that’s undertaken.


AUSTRALIAN UNIVERSITIES WILL thrive again. They are responsive institutions that have seen worse times. During the Great Depression, budgets were cut dramatically, but then they were renewed.

Part of the challenge universities face now is that at times their role can be forgotten or diminished: they are often the institutional ‘home’ that supports great achievements, not the main event.

Without robust public support that sees universities as a priority, any boost to government funding for these institutions is difficult for ministers to defend in Cabinet deliberations. Campuses at war with themselves have little chance of being effectively managed by those charged to lead. Universities with fewer staff will struggle to deliver quality education, let alone provide an innovative experience for students.

These interrelated problems create a daunting challenge. The starting point to their resolution is a public conversation on the roles and responsibilities of Australian universities, and this requires the genuine support of political leaders across the spectrum.

While Australian higher education has had major reviews in the last three decades, and most residents say they support universities, it remains uncertain what Australians can expect of them, what the equilibrium should be between student fees and public subsidies, and how obligations to domestic and international students can be balanced. These issues all have implications for how universities are resourced and held to account.

How successful universities continue to be, or whether they are diminished, depends on how they deal with the adjustments taking place in various sections of their operations: international education, the use of technology and the place of the campus, how they are seen by community and government, and how they manage their operations.

No institution is fully the author of its own destiny, but universities have a strong degree of agency in their own futures. If they are honest, some of their initial response to international students as the pandemic unfolded could have been better – so too the way they told their story over the course of 2020, which at times came over as introspective and self-serving, not about the welfare of students. Canberra might be the paymaster, but politicians, after all – like universities – serve at the pleasure of the Australian people.

This is not to suggest that the higher education policy changes brought in by recent governments have not caused part of the current troubles at universities. Some polices will not be remembered kindly by those whose job it is to manage an increasingly incoherent set of legislative arrangements for funding teaching and research. As a country we are all the worse off for short-sighted interventions that do little to support the future-facing work that is inherent to educating graduates and undertaking research that will support the future prosperity of the country.

Berating universities, as if this act alone will solve other public policy issues, is not realpolitik and in the end just wastes everyone’s time.

After the rupture of the pandemic, Australia gets to decide whether it wants to be a leader or a follower in higher education. Higher education is becoming more important internationally, not less. The ‘gross enrolment ratio’ – one measure of the proportion of the population enrolled – has significantly increased in recent decades in almost all countries, rich and poor, old and new. China has invested vast sums in educating its population. US higher education remains robust. These are the countries that will affect the Australian sector’s wellbeing in years to come, and machinations in Canberra may little influence that.

Australia has a shot at regaining its place of recognised influence on the future of higher education around the world. Would anyone seriously advocate that we do everything in our power to undermine such an opportunity? Surely twenty-five-plus years of unbroken economic growth has not left us that vain and short-sighted as a country?


Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review