In the United States, the general public has an increasingly negative view of universities. In 2019, 38 per cent of respondents to a Pew Research Center survey said that universities had a negative effect on the way things are going in the country, up from 26 per cent in 2012.
In Australia, there is no directly equivalent question but successive questions on confidence in universities find that around three-quarters of respondents have a ‘great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of confidence in universities. The numbers are down slightly on their peak, but above where they were at the start of the century. With other important institutions scoring poorly on this question, university ratings are high and resilient.
In the US, the decline is driven by Republican voters. They share with Democrats concerns about tuition costs and employment outcomes, and also believe that students are protected too much from views they might disagree with and that academics bring their political beliefs into the classroom. There are some parallel critiques in Australia, with worries about free speech and left-wing bias in some courses.
So far, however, these concerns are not significantly influencing how Coalition voters perceive universities. As the chart below shows, about three-quarters of them have confidence in universities, compared to 80 per cent or more for supporters of left-wing parties. It is people who don’t support any party or prefer a minor party who have the lowest confidence in universities.
The lower confidence levels of people who do not support major parties is partly to do with education. People with less education have lower confidence in universities and are also more likely not to favour the major parties. Among the people who don’t support the majors but do have a degree, 77 per cent have confidence in universities.
Perhaps confidence in universities will decline in the future. A dip in confidence a few years ago coincided with very bad employment outcomes and universities supporting fee deregulation. With the global economy in poor shape, recent positive trends in graduate employment may reverse themselves. Possibly future surveys will show the effects of recent negative publicity around international students.
But while there are issues to be worked on, there are important differences between higher education politics here and in the US. Australia’s utilitarian universities have never shaped the character and views of students in the American way, and so they are a less valuable trophy in the culture wars. Australian students can go straight into vocational courses without ever taking any of the humanities courses at the centre of American political correctness controversies. HELP loans protect students from the debt crises the US system inflicts on students and graduates. Although our academic merit-based admissions systems have their critics, we have largely avoided the racial preference, nepotism, and corruption issues of the American system, and so also dodged their associated resentments.
I doubt we will see anything like the declining support for universities observed in American public opinion.