June 2015

The Nation Reviewed


By Linda Jaivin
Australian universities need US-style funding, not US-style fees

Every Friday the 13th and Leap Day is Carberry Day on the campus of Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island. It is named for Josiah S Carberry, the university’s famous professor of psychoceramics (the study of “cracked pots”). Carberry himself is an elusive figure, never even showing up for his own lectures. That is because he is entirely fictional, a fact that doesn’t stop Brown scholars from inserting sly references to his work in academic papers.

Carberry has “existed” since 1929, an old tradition but not nearly as old as Brown itself. The university’s founding in 1764 pre-dates even the American Revolution. Brown is distinguished historically by a commitment to equality of opportunity and, since 1969, a radically innovative curriculum. Its alumni include philanthropist John D Rockefeller, Jr, humorist SJ Perelman, chair of the US Federal Reserve Janet Yellen, World Bank president Jim Yong Kim, writer Jeffrey Eugenides, film director Todd Haynes, This American Life host and executive producer Ira Glass – and me.

Going to Brown meant that not long after graduating from my very ordinary, small-town public high school, I was attending lectures in physics by a Nobel laureate, wrestling with essays on political philosophy, and beginning what would be a life-changing study of Chinese history, culture and language. Brown, with its inspiring teachers and its atmosphere of diversity and freethinking, was my idea of heaven. It gave me a first-class, four-year liberal arts education for which I am thankful every day.

It continues to give me the glossy, bimonthly Brown Alumni Magazine. In the March–April issue, an article called ‘Cost of College’ caught my eye. It talked about how Brown will increase its financial aid budget by 8% this year despite a deficit caused by both a drop in federal research funding and a sharp rise in the need for financial aid by its student body.

Brown is highly selective: it accepted only 2660 of the 30,431 applicants for the class that will graduate in 2018. The university recognises that $US49,346 per year in tuition and fees ($US62,046 if you factor in room and board) is unaffordable to many. Like the other Ivy League universities, it has a “need-blind” admissions policy for US citizens. If you’re accepted, you are guaranteed the financial aid you need to attend – potentially a mix of loans, on-campus work and an outright bursary. If your parents earn less than $US60,000 combined and have savings under $US100,000, Brown covers tuition, fees and room and board outright; there is nothing to repay. Only students whose parents earn more than $US100,000 may end up with a loan as part of their financial aid package.

Brown was never cheap. When I began studying there in 1973, tuition was $US3250 (the equivalent of almost $US18,000 today). My family, though far from rich, was able to cover my tuition and expenses thanks in part to money my pharmacist grandfather left specifically for my education. (My peers in Australia, of course – including the education minister, Christopher Pyne – enjoyed an entirely free university education from 1974 under Gough Whitlam.) Average figures for tuition and fees in the American private and public tertiary education sector today are $US29,404 and $US7142 a year respectively.

Christopher Pyne argues that only if Australian universities are able to set their own tuition and fees – in part to make up for a planned decrease in the government’s funding of the tertiary sector – will they be equipped to compete with the best in the world. Janice Dudley, associate dean and senior lecturer at Perth’s Murdoch University, has pointed out at The Conversation that Australia’s universities already compete rather well. Depending on which ranking system you look at, we have between four and eight of the top 100 universities in the world. That is more, Dudley notes, than France, China, Japan or Russia. Dudley adds that we even have proportionally more than the US when you consider that they have more than 100 times the number of universities that we do: some 4700 to our 43. Both the authoritative QS and Times Higher Education World University Rankings for 2014–15, incidentally, rate the University of Melbourne and the Australian National University (ANU) above Brown. (QS ranks the University of Sydney, the University of Queensland and the University of New South Wales over Brown as well.) Dudley characterises Pyne’s claim as “at best, fanciful and disingenuous”.

One reason students and faculty (if not always their vice-chancellors) have been so passionately opposed to Pyne’s proposed reforms is that they will create a hierarchy of universities that threatens to put the best education out of the reach of students from less well-off families. As the financial aid policies of many top American universities recognise, the best students – as crucial to a good university as the quality of its faculty and research – don’t necessarily come from the wealthiest families. Such policies acknowledge that a future burden of debt can be a serious disincentive to study for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The US spends just under 2.7% of GDP on education. We spend 1.6%. Pyne wants to spend even less. Yet what supports the culture of excellence at universities like Brown is not their high tuition and fees (Brown is running on a deficit, after all) but their rich endowments. Brown, with an endowment worth more than $US3 billion, is the 30th wealthiest university in North America. Dudley notes that Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Princeton all have endowments of more than $US20 billion. Besides providing scholarships to less advantaged students, healthy endowments pay for top faculty and leading research. But the culture of endowment-based education, one that relies on generous donations from alumni and others, is almost unique to North America. (Elsewhere, most non-profit universities are government-financed.) As Dudley points out, no Australian university can boast of an endowment in excess of $A1.5 billion; that of ANU is a piddling $A200 million.

If Pyne wants to guarantee American-style excellence, he simply needs to consider American-style funding levels, including scholarships for need-blind admissions. His current proposals – including funding the now homeless, truly psychoceramic Bjørn Lomborg “consensus centre” – are worthy of Josiah S Carberry; let’s hope this government leaves the Australian university system with more than a few cracked pots to piss in.

Linda Jaivin

Linda Jaivin is an author and translator of Chinese. Her books include Eat Me, The Infernal Optimist and A Most Immoral Woman. Her most recent works are the novel The Empress Lover and the Quarterly Essay ‘Found in Translation’.

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