Recurrent critiques, concerns and crises in Australian higher education

In a previous post on Gwil Croucher and James Waghorne’s Australian Universities: A History of Common Cause, I noted a range of significant changes in Australian higher education over the last century. This post looks at recurrent themes.

Debate about the purpose(s) of the university

From the start Australia’s universities served multiple purposes, with on-going tensions between knowledge for its own sake, typically most strongly supported by academics, and meeting practical needs, typically most strongly supported by governments.

At the 1920 meeting that Croucher and Waghorne mark as the start of a national organisation of universities, University of Sydney Chancellor Sir William Cullen warned against ‘adopting too enthusiastically the current preoccupation with ideas of “national efficiency”‘.

World War II brought the Commonwealth government into funding higher education, but as part of the war effort. Croucher and Waghorne describe a meeting between universities and the minister for war organisation of industry, John Dedman, who told universities to direct their research to war requirements and provide training ‘not previously regarded as university work’. Apparently the audience was ‘stunned’, but Dedman was just giving a blunt and uncompromising version of a message universities would hear again and again in future years.

The work emphasis of Job-ready Graduates replays old tensions rather than presenting new challenges to universities.

Departing University of Sydney VC Michael Spence gave a good departing speech noting the contradictory pressures.


Financial shortfalls and funding crises are a regular feature of university life.

Between 1929 and 1934, during the Great Depression, Croucher and Waghorne report that state grants to universities were cut by an average 23 per cent.

In 1952 the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee claimed that inflation had wiped out much of the value of their grants, triggering a ‘crisis’ in their finances. The booklet they published arguing this point, available on the National Library website, was according to Croucher and Waghorne a novel move into public advocacy.

In the 1970s and early 1980s universities entered a ‘steady state’ of flat Commonwealth funding – and because the Commonwealth became the dominant funder of universities in 1974 that mean flat total funding.

Universities experienced another period of constrained public funding from the mid-1990s to early 2000s, and then again in recent years.

But no matter how much money universities have they never feel well off. Overall the 21st century has been good for universities, with substantial increases in both public and private revenues, but this had little effect on the sector narrative of cuts and constraints.

One explanation for this is the revenue theory of costs: that universities raise all the money they can, and spend all the money they raise, endlessly creating new higher cost bases that then leave them vulnerable to revenue downturns. Underlying this dynamic is increased student demand for higher education, an academic workforce that always wants to do more research, and expensive university rankings ambitions.

Academic hostility to university administrators

Academic staff report high dissatisfaction with university management. Staff grumble about their bosses in all industries. But in universities this criticism has another dimension, with academics not fully accepting the authority of university management.

This scepticism has its origins in the idea of universities as collegial communities, with academics enjoying a high degree of personal autonomy within rules set by other academics. This idea is challenged by university leaders allocating resources and manipulating behaviour with targets and incentives.

Because administrators running universities departs from an idealised vision of university life, academic critiques turn management from a practice into an ideology, ‘managerialism’.

The undoubted decline in academic working conditions over the last thirty years (noted in my previous post on the Croucher and Waghorne book) has significantly exacerbated these tensions, along with outrage about excessive executive pay.

But the Croucher and Waghorne book shows that resistance to vice-chancellors started well before they were awarded $1 million-plus salaries. For a long time internal opposition meant that universities did not even have a CEO-type figure. The University of Sydney, founded in 1850, did not get a vice-chancellor until 1927; the University of Melbourne, founded in 1853, did not get a vice-chancellor until 1930; with similar stories at the University of Queensland (1909/1938), the University of Adelaide (1874/1948), and the University of Tasmania (1846/1949).

Admission standards

Universities are regularly criticised for low admission requirements. Teaching has been a particular target in recent years, prompting a regulatory response.

But as Croucher and Waghorne report, admission standards are a perennial concern. In the 1950s, when very few people went to university, there were complaints that matriculation standards (the school leaving exams that qualified students for university admission) were too low.

In forerunners of today’s ATAR critiques, universities looked to supplementary indicators of suitability, including interviews and psychological testing.

In 1977 a survey of academics conducted for the Williams review found 44 per cent agreement with the proposition that educational expansion had lowered the academic ability of students.

Views had changed little by the time of a 2011 survey of academics, with 47 per cent agreeing that ‘academic standards at my university aren’t what they used to be’.

These perceptions are not without any foundation. The number of students admitted with lower ATARs has definitely increased. But there have always been mediocre and unmotivated students.

Communists and cold wars

In the Cold War, universities were criticised for their ‘pinko professors’. Croucher and Waghorne tell us that universities sometimes took ASIO advice on their academic appointments. In 1956, Max Hartwell, the Dean of NSW University of Technology’s [later UNSW rather than UTS] Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, resigned over what he saw as a politically motivated decision to deny Russel Ward a job based on his past membership of the Communist Party.*

In the late 1960s and 1970s the Vietnam War and conscription, aiming to stop the spread of communism, helped radicalise students. ASIO again got involved, although not necessarily with much success. As Sally Percival Wood remarked in her book on the 1960s student press, ‘agents appeared incongruously in suits and wearing hats in entirely the wrong setting’.

And now universities are caught up in another cold war clash with a communist state, China, although this time communist ideology is not the main concern. Australia’s strategic and commercial conflict with China has more serious repercussions for universities than previous cold war rivalries. Because China cannot be specifically named, broadly written laws interfere widely with foreign academic collaboration. And in the last cold war, universities were not financially dependent on the USSR.


What is unusual about 2020 is that all these recurrent concerns, except for admission standards, are at heightened levels. Despite many periods of funding stagnation in the post-WW2 era, declines in nominal-dollar university income are very rare, but almost certainly happened in 2020. The consequent staff retrenchments have exacerbated pre-existing tensions between academics and administrators. And 2020 was also the year when the Commonwealth stirred the purpose of the university debate with Job-ready Graduates and renewed old suspicions that university staff were not acting in Australia’s national interest.


* Hartwell himself was no fellow traveller; he was later president of the classical liberal Mont Pelerin Society.

4 thoughts on “Recurrent critiques, concerns and crises in Australian higher education

  1. Thanks, Andrew, for this perspective, including the inconvenient contrast you draw between revenue growth and the sector’s narrative. You say:

    “Overall the 21st century has been good for universities, with substantial increases in both public and private revenues, but this had little effect on the sector narrative of cuts and constraints…”

    I would add that our revenue growth also looks strong in international comparisons; again in contrast to the sector’s narrative. In last year’s OECD reporting, total tertiary spending rose by 71% in Australia over 2005-2016. This compares with growth of 28% and 20% for the OECD and European Union averages. In final public spending (excluding HELP loans) government funding in Australia grew by 49% compared to 30% and 15% for the OECD and EU.

    There are many caveats, of course, such as our above-average enrolment growth. But overall, I think our OECD laggard story, seen in the 2008 Bradley Review, has been reprised over the decade since then, rather than revised in the light of later evidence.


  2. I question the binary division over purpose of the university, between academics and governments. (I recognise that you qualify it with ‘mostly’ in both cases.) I suspect that an ideal of ‘knowledge for its own sake’, whatever that means, is much more widely shared than just by the academic profession, though academics with their own material interests in mind no doubt act as effective gatekeepers for a kind of professional ideology which might fit under this heading. Governments as bursary agents funding the whole show might equally have a material interest in ‘practical needs’ (whatever they are). But this is very blurry in reality; Cullen for example was not really an academic (an academic manque, perhaps) but a lawyer — how does this fit the binary divide? I think this division misses a whole field of human experience and intention around the pursuit of knowledge and scholarship, which is germane to but somehow not captured by our present debates over (for example) job-ready graduates and academic freedom.


  3. These debates (and indeed many other debates) are conducted as if they were fundamental divides when really they are about what should be done at the margins, with the parties either not wanting total victory for their preferred direction or having no realistic prospect of achieving it.


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