JavaScript disabled. Please enable JavaScript to use My News, My Clippings, My Comments and user settings.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

Why higher education needs to be more like BMW than Ford


James Athanasou

"A university experience is fine but it needs to be very high quality and maybe intended only for the top 5 per cent or ...

"A university experience is fine but it needs to be very high quality and maybe intended only for the top 5 per cent or less of our population." Photo: AFR

Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne and the heads of our universities are barking up the wrong tree if they think expanding the university sector is the answer to increased competition from overseas. 

They should be thinking about shrinking it and making it more exclusive. Many years ago BMW made more profit by building fewer cars than Ford. The trick was the quality – people were prepared to pay for it. 

The unchecked expansion of tertiary education is not sustainable. It feeds the egos of greedy administrators. It has created a sheltered workshop for some woeful academics. Everyone is now a professor (including yours truly) whereas once it was a rarity. 

We have created a society with an ever increasing dependence on education. The Native American Hopi word Powaqqatsi defines a spirit that is ever-consuming, self-perpetuating. This is tertiary education in Australia. 

Single degree courses such as law mutated into double degrees or full-fee paying postgraduate degrees. Some professional fields are now exclusively graduate entry.

The destruction of the Colleges of Advanced Education, the annihilation of the TAFE sector and the privatising of post-school education is as close to educational suicide as we will ever come. 

Management, teaching, accounting, optometry, nursing were once outside the university. They were provided at a decent standard before they were snatched into universities. 

There would be howls of protest if anyone dared to suggest that nursing be returned to hospitals. The professors of midwifery would out-scream the newborns. 

But why should the cost of a nursing course be borne by the student rather than the employer? Surely it is the employers who should provide the education and training. Can we really say that management in Australia is now wonderfully better because of all the two-bit MBAs and business graduates in the CBD? Was the primary school teacher from one of our teaching colleges in the 1960s vastly inferior to a four-year graduate in teaching from one of our universities? 

What we have done is to transfer the costs of professional education and vocational training to the individual. People now spend the best part of their lives in schools and universities. They may not see the light of day until they are in their mid-20s. They emerge with a debt and then there is a mad scramble to obtain a coursework Master’s degree in order to remain competitive in the workplace. 

Others will find they need an unpaid internship just to get a start. Many courses insert a practicum but you would not need this if you were already studying and working co-operatively in your chosen field. 

As a general rule, if a course has a practical component or an internship it should not be offered in a university. Now that will ruffle a few feathers. 

Universities are places where you go to learn about theory; they teach you things that you may not need to know but that no one else would bother to tell you. TAFE and Colleges of Advanced Education teach you what you need to earn a living. 

The present system is expensive. There are 888,000 domestic students and it costs the federal government about $10,500 per student. We have become reliant on 333,000 international students to make ends meet.

Furthermore, there are inexplicable overlaps in course provision across 37 public and two private universities. Once there were two ways of obtaining a law qualification in Sydney and we were not starved of lawyers; now one has a choice of at least 10 universities in NSW. Why? Do we also really need four faculties of medicine in Sydney?

 We have four universities with more than 50,000 students and four with fewer than 10,000 students in Australia.  

The constant promotion to would-be students is evidence of serious oversupply. The open days and glossy brochures reek of glitzy marketing more akin to selling cars than courses. Your educational dollar is paying for all this. 

A university experience is fine but it needs to be very high quality and maybe intended only for the top 5 per cent or less of our population. We would then become the educational envy of the world. 

At the same time we should restore other avenues of education and training to create a highly skilled nation. Pathways for those who are disadvantaged should always be provided to work their way through the system. 

It is also time we returned some courses to commerce and industry to ensure that the training is relevant, to ensure there is no oversupply and so that the costs are not borne by the individual alone. 

Above all, we need to reduce the plethora of universities offering similar courses within spitting distance of each other as well as the mad scramble for students. 

There should be only one university in Sydney, albeit with branches everywhere. This is the way to defeat mass-produced tertiary education and worldwide competition. The choice is between BMW and Ford quality graduates.

James Athanasou is Adjunct Professor in Education at University of Technology, Sydney and Associate Professor, Rehabilitation Counselling at The University of Sydney.

68 comments so far

  • Great article raising some good questions.

    "Was the primary school teacher from one of our teaching colleges in the 1960s vastly inferior to a four-year graduate in teaching from one of our universities?"

    I am so old that I actually completed the departmental-based two year primary teaching certificate in 1960. Later I upgraded to a four year education qualification from a now-defunct CAE. Then I did post-graduate studies in two fields.

    There were things that I learned in that first two year course that have served me well over a lifetime of teaching. Assessing listening and hearing skills were two things that still stand out in my memory. Of course I trained when tv had barely reached us and listening and hearing were soon adjudged to be obsolescent in the new visual world. But as an English language teacher in SE Asia, I still use some of those old techniques on a daily basis.

    Times have changed but not all change has been an improvement.

    Date and time
    April 28, 2014, 12:30AM
    • I'd agree, as when I first went to uni in the late 70s/early 80s only around 10% or less of HS students went on to university (and more or less for free), and many others went to do more practical courses at teachers' colleges or TAFE. These days it seems that around half of HS students will go on to 'university', but probably only half of those could benefit from/cope with a 'proper' university course, and are doing a 'degree' in name only -- but unis constantly invent new degrees/courses with lower difficulty/standards in order to get these students enrolled, and then get a decent percentage to actually 'pass'.

      However, I can't see the gutted TAFE system being reinstated anytime soon, and it's hard to take the article seriously when it is written by a 'professor' (as he points out himself) who works at 'university' of technology Sydney (the old Sydney Technical College). Is he actively pushing for UTS to rebrand itself as a technical college and rename his position 'head teacher'? ps. As a Sydney Uni drop-out (currently back again to do a P/T PhD) who did a TAFE certificate, then an applied science degree (at UTS), a couple of post-grad diplomas from other Australian 'unis' via distance education, and then a Masters, I can vouch for the fact that the standards at many of the current 'universities' are more akin to the old TAFE courses that a 'real' university.

      Then again, my kids had 'graduation' ceremonies when completing Kindy, and some US high schools (apparently) 'graduate' their HS students wearing uni-style cap and gown ceremonies. So we might as well succumb to the reality of 'degree inflation' and admit that a Masters is the new bachelors, and even a PhD is not that special these days.

      Date and time
      April 28, 2014, 1:54PM
    • Pre-Whitlam, and fee paying, the best teachers were a result of scholarships for the lower economic orders. Poor kids who were smart, got a teacher's scholarship, and then may have stayed in the profession. Now we have kids with ATARs of 70 teaching......barely about the median of their Year 10 cohort.....and most come from the upper middle classes.

      Date and time
      April 28, 2014, 5:35PM
  • Are we missing a point here in the long discussion of quality and the need of university education. Before thinking any measures of uplifting of the standard of education, we need to think about what is it for? If I did not miss the pivot of this discussion, education has been shown here as means of uplifting the skills. Is it the only purpose of of university education? The main purpose of university education along with skill building is to develop and nourish the most sublime human qualities. But in this market oriented economy, everyone tries to see efucation as an investment simply to gain economic productivity. Hence time and again, we try to see how much better teachers, lawyers, managers, doctors our universities can produce forgetting the reality that it is not the professional qualifications or training but professions itself with the dedication and commitment of the professionals make a man true and perfect professional in the long run. And this commitment and dedication is part of human qualities which are nurtured through the university education. The purpose of education particularlu university education is to broaden overall human qualities which in its way also make them capable to pursue a particular profession. Profession is important, but of course is not more important than human beings. So as Cardinal Newman said we need to see university education as a means of producing perfect human beings rather as a mere machinery of generating skilled professionals.

    Date and time
    April 28, 2014, 5:57AM
    • ... As long as it is not reserved for a wealthy elite.

      I would like to see TAFE strengthened, rather than attacked as it is now, to provide vocational courses in useful disciplines. TAFe training could also be sandwiched with work.

      I don't believe that private colleges will ever successfully replace of TAFE because some central planning is required to meet the future needs of employers and to ensure that all students can be catered for.

      Date and time
      April 28, 2014, 8:17AM
    • I agree with @Alice. The "elite" should be based solely on intellect, not the wallet. I also agree that TAFE really needs to be supported.

      Date and time
      April 28, 2014, 11:45AM
    • "But in this market oriented economy, everyone tries to see education as an investment simply to gain economic productivity."

      Can you describe some point in our history when we didn't have a market based economy?

      Date and time
      April 28, 2014, 12:57PM
    • "As long as it is not reserved for a wealthy elite"

      Well said Alice, the problem with corporate Australia today, over bloated with MBA elitist stereo types running the show, all over paid and happily agreeing with each other without a clue about what really happens at the coalface of their business's. Experts at using University taught formulated business jargon which always ends up blaming its workforce..

      Just look at the state of our once proud national airline, Qantas. When it all gets too hard, throw your hand up in the air and sell the farm, take the money and run, just another example of what is happening in this country. Too many over qualified people calling the shots without hands on experience?

      Sooner or later Australia will run out of farms to sell, then what do we do with all our formulated jargonistic graduates from the uni chocolate factory?
      I guess our Universities will then compete for Asian student market, train them up to return to their respective countries and run the once Australian owned business's.

      Meanwhile Tony Abbott will have to extend the qualifying pension age to 80 for those of us who are left competing for a job at Woolies or Coles for a shift on permanent part time night fill roster.

      Uni Graduates 1 hands on skills 0. "nǐ hǎo" hello.... :-)

      Advance Australia Fair, not..

      Date and time
      April 28, 2014, 1:53PM
  • Spot on!

    Dr Ken Darvall
    Date and time
    April 28, 2014, 6:16AM
    • +1!

      The government is trying to suck so much money out of the tertiary sector, it risks destroying it altogether.

      Just one example ... when I attended uni in the late 80s, there was a maximum of 20 students per tutorial. A few years back, I did some contract teaching (there's another issue) at uni ... where my tutorial could have as many as 100 students.

      There is no good educational reason for increasing class sizes to this extent ... it's all about the $$$. In the end a uni degree will be worthless.

      Date and time
      April 28, 2014, 11:17AM

More comments

Make a comment

You are logged in as [Logout]

All information entered below may be published.

Error: Please enter your screen name.

Error: Your Screen Name must be less than 255 characters.

Error: Your Location must be less than 255 characters.

Error: Please enter your comment.

Error: Your Message must be less than 300 words.

Post to

You need to have read and accepted the Conditions of Use.

Thank you

Your comment has been submitted for approval.

Comments are moderated and are generally published if they are on-topic and not abusive.

Featured advertisers

Special offers

Credit card, savings and loan rates by Mozo