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.