Australian politics, society & culture


University of Sydney graduation ceremony. © Steven Siewert / SMH / Fairfax

September 2016Long read

Earlier this year Professor Glyn Davis, vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, published an essay in which he warned that Australia’s public universities should heed the fate that befell the monasteries in England under Henry VIII. Like the ancient monasteries, he wrote, universities are places apart, places that can become preoccupied with their own concerns. It is easy for them to forget that tradition does not protect them from politics. They, too, are vulnerable to worldly power, and to survive they might need to find new ways of serving their communities.

To the casual observer, seeing the leader of Australia’s highest-ranked university conduct such a dramatic thought experiment – especially under the title ‘Dissolving the University?’ – seemed a little alarming. But perhaps it was meant to be. In higher education policy, it’s been an alarming couple of years.

When the then education minister, Christopher Pyne, announced fee deregulation in 2014, he shocked the public and startled a sector already accustomed to market-driven change. Deregulating fees, says Dr Hannah Forsyth, a history lecturer at the Australian Catholic University (ACU) and the author of A History of the Modern Australian University, “would have been the single biggest change to higher education policy in 30 years”. The move to allow the market to price degrees failed, of course. The Higher Education and Research Reform Bill (2014) was rejected by the Senate. Twice. But the abortive tilt towards full marketisation showed that anything was thinkable now; the sector has been nervously perched on the brink of a new world ever since.

The problem Pyne was ostensibly trying to solve was the rising public cost of higher education. Undergraduate places were uncapped under the demand-driven system introduced in 2009 by the Gillard Labor government. Enrolments grew by more than a quarter in the five years to 2014; since 2009 the cost of Commonwealth-supported places has risen twice as fast as GDP. Earlier this year the Department of Education and Training estimated that unpaid debt from the HELP (formerly HECS) deferred student loan scheme would create a $13.5 billion hole in the federal budget over the next four years. Some projections have total student debt nudging $200 billion in 2025. As the rhetoric of fiscal cataclysm ratcheted up, cuts followed cuts, and the market-driven thought bubbles kept coming, including a 20% cut to base funding. A discussion paper issued with the federal budget this year mooted a partial fee deregulation for a limited number of “flagship degrees” and an across-the-board loan fee. But these were only mooted. The government didn’t go to the election with much more than a promise to refer policy to an expert panel for review.

The neoliberal push to hand over even more higher education policy to market forces has failed – the Pyne reforms were a bridge too far. For those dismayed by the trend towards privatisation of public higher education, this could be a moment of historic satisfaction. But it also leaves us with a policy impasse. “You might call it a period of enforced stability,” suggests ACU’s vice-chancellor, Professor Greg Craven, when I ask him what he is expecting from the government’s new term. “Which, frankly, would be welcome.”

Uncapping student places was itself a radical change, and universities have plenty to be going on with, grappling with its consequences. But in the long view, the demand-driven system is just the most recent episode in a tale of relentless expansion of Australian higher education. Not so long ago, as recently as the 1970s, only a small fraction of Australians went on to university. For most people, the “monasteries” were the concern of the middle classes who went to get their professional credentials; what went on in them was a mystery, and not a particularly interesting one. In 1945, 30,000 people went to university in Australia. But when Prime Minister Robert Menzies introduced Commonwealth scholarships in 1951 as part of a massive nation-building investment in tertiary education and research, more Australians from humble backgrounds got a taste of the transforming power of university education. They saw that going to university could change lives, and when Gough Whitlam made universities free, more Australians dared to dream it could change theirs. By 1975, 270,000 Australians were enrolled in higher education. Today it’s more than 1.2 million. Glyn Davis is himself a representative of the aspirational forces driving the phenomenal expansion of our universities: the man who holds one of the most prestigious jobs in one of our largest industries grew up in the southern Sydney suburb of Kogarah, and was, like many new students pouring through the doors of universities today, the first person in his family to go to university.

This is an extraordinary change, and in many ways it’s a triumph. Universities used to be for an elite. Now they’re for the masses. But it’s not immediately obvious how the costs of this achievement can be covered. The aspirational genie is out of the bottle. Australians, especially those in marginal seats, cherish the chance to go to university as much as they loathe fee deregulation. That’s why the Labor Party ran a “$100,000 degrees” scare campaign in this year’s federal election, clearly poking at a psychic bruise left over from the deregulation scare. We want deregulated access to universities; we don’t want to pay deregulated fees. And if the bidding war of this recent election is any indicator, we don’t want to pay much tax either.

This is the critical problem we face as demand-driven expansion makes itself felt in budgets, in universities and in workforce statistics. Davis certainly isn’t against broadest possible inclusion. “How can you be against improved equity?” But the wider consequences of uncapping places can’t just be wished away. “What we’re seeing is populist politics,” he tells me. “Having affirmed a demand system, governments are now trying to find ways to manage its effects without having to go back and have an argument about whether it’s a sensible policy.”

It sounds like they’re going to get an argument anyway. You don’t have to stray far into higher education policy to detect a tangible air of crisis: a widespread sense that the system just isn’t working. Partly it’s the money: the problem, said Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, in a speech earlier this year, of “pressure on public budgets, mass demand for education, universities squashed unhappily in the middle”. Hobbled by uncertain federal funding and unpredictable private demand, universities say they face intensifying global competition for students, teachers and rankings, particularly from fast-growing universities in East Asia – and new online degree factories from pretty much anywhere. But there’s more. Academics are angry about managerialism, and disheartened by bigger classes of time-poor students who in turn are finding it harder to find the jobs they’ve trained for. Industry says it can’t find the graduates it wants. Some say that uncapping places has affected the entire sector’s “brand health”. Others think too many students are being crammed into the system, too many are dropping out and that dime-a-dozen bachelor degrees are sending quality into freefall while the vocational training system has been starved into a shadow of its former self. And the government says we can’t even afford the system we’ve got now.

It sounds like a mess. Everyone seems to think the reality of expanded tertiary education is falling short of the dream, but everyone has a different idea of what the dream should be, and how the system needs to be fixed. Universities have a broader public constituency than ever before, but the growth pressures only seem to have exposed a lack of consensus around the purpose of our universities – and, perhaps, a mismatch between what millions of Australians now expect from higher education and what they’re prepared to pay for.

“It’s hard to know precisely what the public reaction to deregulated fees was a protest against,” says Dr Ben Etherington, a Western Sydney University academic and co-founder of the National Alliance for Public Universities. “Was it against unis adopting a market system for a public good that should operate, like Medicare, in a social democratic mould? Or was it more, as I would like to believe, people having a gut response to the changing nature of universities themselves – seeing prices getting attached to degrees, and sensing that things have gone horribly wrong?”

You don’t have to step back far to make out a much more uplifting story, to see what Stephen Parker – then vice-chancellor of the University of Canberra, and the only vice-chancellor to publicly reject deregulation in 2014 – was seeing when he derided the Pyne reforms as “ideology in search of a problem”. In many ways, Australia’s higher education sector looks like a national treasure. A poll commissioned by the Australian National University in 2014 found that universities came in third most trusted of nine institutions, behind the defence forces and the police. Our universities employ 50,000 academics and around 120,000 people overall. They have a good reputation overseas. International education has become our third-largest export industry, adding nearly $19 billion to the economy in 2015; scaled for population, Australia is second only to tiny Switzerland as the most attractive study destination. Our universities have strong and improving research outputs: in 2014, Australian research publications were 33% more likely to be cited internationally than other publications in their discipline and year, up from only 7% in 2000. We are pioneers in the learning management systems and distance education technologies that are revolutionising the way students learn.

The history of Australian higher education is largely a story of how, by adapting to deal with changing needs, expectations and priorities, and with modest resources, a sector of tiny elitist universities grew into the unrecognisably vast and sophisticated institutions they are today. Before 1945, Australian universities did not even award PhDs. Today 52,000 Australians are studying for their doctorates, and our universities are the backbone of our national R&D effort. In the past 20 years, universities have worked hard to improve the quality of university teaching, and graduate surveys suggest student satisfaction with teaching is rising steadily. University campuses are some of the most cosmopolitan spaces in a cosmopolitan country. And on the numbers, they are places that reward effort. The Grattan Institute has calculated that men with bachelor degrees earn around $1.4 million more over a lifetime than the median male who had no further education after Year 12. For women, the premium is just under $1 million.

This is the promise the demand-driven system held out to a whole new cohort of students once excluded by low ATAR scores, or even just by a sense of what was possible. Social mobility was an express goal of the Bradley Review of Higher Education when it laid out a template for the reforms in 2008: the aim was to drive the proportion of 25-to-34-year-olds with undergraduate degrees to 40%, and to increase the proportion of low socio-economic status (SES) students to 20% of all undergraduates. On paper these look like dry strategic targets, but to people who had never dreamed their children would go to university they sounded like a life-changing promise. “That’s what uncapping places means to people,” says ACU’s Greg Craven. “You know that daughter you thought was going to be a cleaner, like you? She’s going to be an accountant. That son you thought was going to work on the roads? He’s going to be a nurse.”

The latest wave of expansion has been absorbed by teaching-intensive universities in particular, such as Deakin, Macquarie, ACU and Curtin, all of which added at least 6000 places in the five years to 2014. Contrary to cabbies’ wisdom, few of these were in surfing studies. The most striking growth has been in health (nursing in particular), engineering, teaching and science.

Deakin University’s vice-chancellor, Jane den Hollander, describes herself as a great fan of the system. “Because what’s the point of education in the end? Without being smug about it, it’s to educate the next generation to the very highest possible standard and to be inclusive about it. I think that in ten years’ time we will be looking back and hailing the demand-driven system as prescient. We will be able to see that Australia understood it needed to skill its people for the knowledge economy of the second machine age we’re heading into.”

The equity story is not as simple as it might seem. The demand-driven system has increased participation overall, but, says Professor Richard James, director of the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne, “it would be true to say that for an egalitarian nation our system is still more polarised than we want it to be”. An Australian with tertiary-educated parents is about four times more likely to go to university than one whose parents ended their formal education at school, a ratio that puts us about the middle of the OECD pack. We also have one of the highest proportions of private funding for higher education, a ratio that correlates strongly to a society’s overall inequality. While students from elite private schools still proceed with an air of statistical predestination into our elite research universities, most low-SES students are finding places at less prestigious suburban and regional campuses. Overall, the proportional participation by low-SES students has increased but only by 1.5%: from 16.2% of students in 2009 to 17.7% of students in 2014.

Data from Graduate Careers Australia appears to support the idea that degrees are not translating into work as smoothly as they once did. In 2008, 85% of graduates found a job within four months of finishing a degree; last year it was 69%. Only half of science graduates looking for full-time work had found it within four months. Law, a relatively cheap course to provide, is now offered by no less than 41 law schools across the country. A spike in the number of students completing postgraduate courses, especially, has meant that 2014 saw 14,600 graduates competing for work in an industry employing 66,000 solicitors. A quarter of them hadn’t found full-time work within four months of graduation.

Simon Marginson, professor of international higher education at University College London, and for decades one of Australia’s leading authorities on higher education policy, believes that education is still the single best mechanism for social advancement available to people from disadvantaged backgrounds. But in a speech last year he argued that we may have come to expect too much of education, and certainly much more than we can agree to pay for. In many Western countries we’re seeing the fragmentation of consensus about higher education as a “common social project”, he argued. Consequently, we “have overestimated the capacity of education in a society like ours to create an equal society”. Other things matter just as much or more. A progressive tax system with broad public support. Better, and better-funded, schools. Governments that can think of offering more to the voters than the lowest possible tax rate.

So how hard are we prepared to think about making equality through higher education a reality?

Harder than we’re thinking now, suggests Hannah Forsyth. In her history classes at ACU in Sydney, Forsyth teaches many first-in-family students. “I think it’s great – opening access to anybody who really wants to go to uni,” she says. Her students are young people who “seem to feel a university degree will help provide the stability they seek and the jobs that will keep them safe”. But she has concerns, too. She sees students entering a system that has invited them in but refuses to provide the help they need to thrive. “My students are passionate about history – they wouldn’t be doing it otherwise – but they don’t feel secure enough in the world to take any more time over their degree. They normally need to earn money along the way, sometimes to support their parents as well as themselves.

“We need to be prepared to teach them in the world they really live in. It’s frustrating because we know what works. Some level of income support is crucial for these students – ever since the 1940s it’s been crucial for students from poorer backgrounds.”

Supports like Austudy, ABSTUDY and Youth Allowance take some of the earnings pressure off struggling students, though, as Forsyth points out, $215 a week doesn’t go very far if you live in Sydney. “If we can’t make university work for students who need some supports,” she says, “then it is only for those families who are already successful.” Targeted assistance works, if we can find the money for it. Indigenous students are still under-represented in higher education, and still have very high dropout rates, but a concentrated effort to develop innovative access programs in regional universities in particular has clearly been crucial in enabling more young indigenous people than ever – 60% more since 2009 – to start their adult lives with a university education behind them. Equity initiatives, such as the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP), have also helped teaching-intensive universities to ease low-SES students into an unfamiliar and intimidating environment. In this year’s budget, however, funding for HEPPP was halved.

If we really wanted to do a good job of teaching as many Australians as possible, says the University of Melbourne’s Richard James, we’d think seriously about introducing teaching-only universities. But we can’t think about it. Why? Under the current system, no university would be willing to go teaching-only. “Your status drops,” he explains. “You won’t get more funding. You’ll get less funding. Harder to recruit good staff. There are a lot of obstacles in the way. If anyone was to say, ‘Let’s have community colleges in Australia,’ despite the obvious common sense behind that, there would be howls of outrage. No one wants to even talk about it.”

In August, the CEO of the Group of Eight (Go8) coalition of “Australia’s leading universities”, Vicki Thomson, set off a talkback radio storm when she gave a speech arguing that the demand-driven system needed urgent modification. It was time, she said, to state the obvious: “University isn’t for everyone.” Uncapping places had produced an oversupply of graduates; it had left students with qualifications of dubious value, “broken dreams” and “a large student debt”.

Greg Craven dismisses talk of a graduate glut. ACU’s graduate teachers have employment rates above 80%, he says, and forecasting future workforce numbers is notoriously difficult anyway. “These are not serious critiques. They’re trying to give a sense of crisis for the single reason that there is a great desire to transfer money out of demand-driven and into an elite view of education.” As vice-chancellor of a non-Go8 university that has actively pursued growth on equity grounds, Craven arguably has an interest in this debate. But others agree with him. According to a lecturer at a Go8 university who asked not to be named, the Go8’s rhetoric about low teaching standards “is just hiding the politics of money”.

For decades now, governments have steadily shifted the cost of mass participation from the taxpayer to universities and students. Real government funding per student as a proportion of GDP has been trending downwards since the mid 1970s. There were cuts in 1996 under John Howard, and more cuts under Labor in 2012 and 2013, and then the “efficiency dividend” knee-capping of 2014. This year’s budget brought cuts of $1.4 billion over three years of the forward estimates. Of course, this still isn’t enough austerity for those eager to let the market work the fat off higher education. In March, an editorial in the Australian rejoiced in what it took to be signs that Education Minister Simon Birmingham meant to end the “era of excessive state patronage” of Australian universities.

In reality, our public spending on higher education as a proportion of GDP is among the lowest in the OECD – around 0.7% on 2011 figures compared to an average of 1.1%. The Australian itself reports that in 2015 the real figure was 0.56%. Either way, it’s getting lower with each passing year. Our universities squabble for a bigger share of an ever-diminishing supply of funding. Which is not only unsightly – “I think the public sees us as a group of noisy mendicants,” Greg Craven tells me – but self-defeating. What tends to happen when universities appeal for more money, he says, is “we identify another group of universities and try to get the government to take the money off them in the bizarre belief that if the money comes off someone else it will be given to us”.

“But it never is given to us. The government uses it to pay off the bottom line or it buys another aircraft carrier.”

It’s not hard to see why staff–student ratios have decreased, or why casually employed, mostly junior, staff do most of the teaching. Or why, as a National Tertiary Education Union survey found last year, nine out of ten academics think government policies are “taking the sector in the wrong direction”.

Universities don’t only battle for direct funding. Because dedicated research funding hasn’t kept pace with university ambitions, higher education institutions also fight one another for students. They need students, and the funding they bring with them, to make up shortfalls elsewhere. So they skim some of the money meant to pay for teaching to fund everything else they want to do: Andrew Norton, higher education program director at the Grattan Institute, has estimated that in 2012 universities diverted at least $2 billion of teaching subsidies into research. This leads to a bizarre cycle in which institutions devote tremendous energy to vying for the students they need to pay for the research and high-tech infrastructure that will lift their global rankings so that they can attract more students – all the while steadily enriching PR agencies around the country. (“The first thing I would do if I was put in charge?” says Hannah Forsyth. “I’d ban – or at least put a cap on – all university advertising.”) International students, and especially international commerce students who are cheap to teach, are an especially lucrative source of this internal cross-subsidy.

In university budgets, anyway, the increasing commercialisation of the higher education sector has been a tremendous success. Over the past few decades, our public universities have proved quite capable of making money. But in the process they’ve become unrecognisable to many of the people who work in them.

Many global industries have endured great change in the neoliberal era; few can have produced so much eloquent rage and despair. In books with titles like Whackademia and The University in Ruins, and in j’accuse-style articles and the seething comment streams beneath, working academics around the world have described the demoralisation of a generation of university believers. In a kind of mass testament to the deformation of the university ideal, they document the demise of old collegiate governance structures and deplore their replacement by “stakeholder-oriented models”, they criticise the rise of managerialism and the Kafkaesque logic of having to jump through the funding application hoops to explain what their research will find before they’ve found it. They deplore the cynicism with which universities rushed to take money from full-fee paying students, without pausing to consider that the expectations of paid-up clients might be incompatible with the rigorous assessment customarily associated with a university degree. As one lecturer put it to me, up-front fees have a “powerful inflationary impact” on marks.

Some of this reflects the painful experience of modernisation for what had been a peculiarly unworldly realm. The collegiate university was, by definition, run by amateurs; it was also largely unaccountable, snobbish, often disdainful of elected governments’ priorities – and exclusive. “The model struggled to comply with basic measures of social utility,” Don Watson wrote in this magazine four years ago, “much less those laid down by the advancing neoliberal hordes.” In the academy run by academics, “useful and rewarding, sometimes brilliant and monumental, intellectual effort coexisted with a certain amount of equally well-paid Olympian lassitude”.

Hannah Forsyth believes academics “collectively earned the audit culture”. But she still wishes she didn’t have to do so much paperwork. Until she started her first continuing academic post at ACU, she didn’t realise how oppressive it was, “this endless paper trail that surrounds all teaching and research”.

“It seems what the uni really wants from me is to fill out a form. How efficient is it to educate thousands of academics to teach and research, and make them fill in forms instead?”

At all universities, writes Donald Meyers, a former science academic, in his ebook denunciad Australian Universities: A portrait of decline, “pointless performance management is the default religion”; there is “a policy, a plan and KPIs for everything and everyone”. Academic staff are assessed by students, too, despite the fact that research – conducted, admittedly, by academics – suggests it’s likeability that is ranked in student feedback, rather than rigour, say, or commitment to teaching. But student feedback forms aren’t about improving teaching, one lecturer told me; they’re about management. “They’re worthless. All you can do is try to keep a sort of ironic distance from it all.” Which is harder to do now that sites like subject academics to the same bracing social media appraisal as Uber drivers or new brasseries.

Glyn Davis is as sympathetic to the institutional heritage of the public university as anyone, but thinks critics of corporatism and marketisation need to avoid falling into imaginary histories of the idea of the university. He points out that when the philosopher Georg Hegel was giving his lectures in the German university town of Jena in the early 1800s, he began each one by collecting fees from his students. And, of course, even under Whitlam higher education in Australia wasn’t really free either: degrees, mostly undertaken by students from middle-class families, were paid for by the public. This, it can be argued (and often is), was a form of middle-class welfare, or regressive taxation.

Dean Ashenden, an education consultant and long-time observer of university policy, has suggested that behind academics’ frustration lies the pain of “loss of caste”. In an article last year, he memorably compared recalcitrant academics to “Russian aristocrats in the Paris of the 1920s, driving taxis and refusing to understand why the world declines to take them at their own estimate, dreaming still of a Restoration”.

But it’s not only scholars who pine for some kind of restoration. Some aspects of the corporatised university don’t exactly inspire confidence in outsiders, either, particularly those things specifically intended to inspire confidence. Marketing campaigns built on empty mantras of “excellence”, “innovation” and the inevitable “world class” seem fundamentally at odds with the critical thinking and reality-testing ethos universities are meant to defend. We all have an image to protect, these days. But there’s something particularly dispiriting going on when billboard ads boasting about a university’s top ranking come with an asterisk referring you to the caveat in the small print below. It’s not unusual now to open a scholarly book from a university press to find, somewhere near the title page, a mission statement making strenuous claims for the “internationally competitive” quality of the work. You can only wonder who, apart from the harried bureaucrat logging the data, is going to be reassured that the ideas contained therein are world class if the ideas themselves don’t give this assurance.

It’s hard to know whether any of these things matter much to the public. There’s little evidence that scholars’ protests are gaining much traction inside universities. Professor Stefan Collini, celebrated critic of the privatisation drive in the UK’s universities, has conceded that over many years, in many different forums, “compelling and often devastating criticisms appear to have had little or no effect … Those who make policy are just not listening.”

But this is not a hospitable time for higher-order arguments about the purposes of universities. To Menzies and Whitlam the idea that higher education rendered indispensable benefits to society as well as to those who participate may have been axiomatic; today, in a centrally planned system with as many competing interests as ours, it’s axiomatic that what you can’t measure doesn’t exist. What’s striking about the debate over how to value universities is that it is conducted in strictly quantifiable terms. As if the only way we can approach the question of value is by asking who’s making a profit.

When you ask the question that way, the answer is clear, as Andrew Norton has shown. Graduates are. Additional lifetime earnings of around a million dollars represent such a good return on students’ fees, you could argue that even if fees were much higher going to university would still be a no-brainer investment. But society-wide dividends go on a spreadsheet too. A 2015 report commissioned from Deloitte Access Economics by Universities Australia found that the annual economic impact of Australia’s graduates was – gulp – $140 billion. More modestly, the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency estimated in 2013 that every extra $1 invested in tertiary education would generate $26 in economic activity in 2025. Universities Australia, whose website is full of economic evidence designed to show that its members’ interests are really everybody’s, also has modelling that shows that for every 1000 graduates who enter the Australian workforce 120 new jobs are created for people without degrees. In 2014–15, that added up to 8064 new jobs created for technicians and tradespeople.

“We’re incredibly good at talking about economics, and how we’re the third-biggest export industry,” Greg Craven remarks. “But very bad at talking about being a fundamental socio-cultural asset.” Trying to put a dollar value on socio-cultural assets, on the ways in which a high-functioning university system might nourish the aspirations of society in general, is not simple. “The things you can’t measure shouldn’t disappear,” Professor Bruce Chapman, designer of Australia’s HECS system, tells me. “But they do. Because they’re so hard to get hold of. Even getting the concepts right is hard.”

Some have given it their best shot anyway. In a benchmark 2009 study, American scholar Walter McMahon attempted to put a value on the direct non-market social benefits per graduate per year and came up with US$27,726. In 2015 an Australian study found that all students become more sociable as a result of going to uni and low-SES graduates became more “agreeable”. That’s a good thing, I guess, and good to know. But we seem to have come a long way from the 1957 Murray Report and its simple confidence that “a good university is the best guarantee that mankind can have, that somebody, whatever the circumstances, will continue to seek the truth and to make it known”.

It’s probably true that in the background of the academic jeremiads is the loss of a certain prestige and authority. But in its most philosophical form the academic lament registers a profounder regret: a sense of the intrinsic value of pursuing knowledge for its own sake. It’s true that in surveys Australians tend to prioritise the practical aspects of institution, teaching and learning, and applied research over the autonomous pursuit of pure knowledge. But universities have sheltered ideas outside the market logic of consumer capitalism, permitted a critical distance that allows them, in Terry Eagleton’s phrase, “to reflect on the values, goals and interests of a social order too frenetically bound up in its own short-term practical pursuits”. The phrase appeared, alas, in an article entitled ‘The Slow Death of the University’.

Institutions do sometimes die, as the monks discovered, but not always by fiat; they can also perish because people stop believing in them. Glyn Davis says he doesn’t buy “the narrative that everything’s got worse”. But he does believe that the idea he celebrates in his essay comparing universities and monasteries, that “universities provide a critically important space for grasping the world as it is and – importantly – for re-imagining the world as it ought to be”, has to be made more tangible to the community.

Universities are also a vital constitutional component representing a mass of independent intellectual capital, Greg Craven tells me. “They are hugely irritating and uncontrollable, ready to critique any government. And that’s hugely important … Yet when we argue for money, that’s almost the last thing we will ever say; it’s like the principle of the last refuge of the scoundrel. Even in research all we can do is quantify the dollar. We have totally failed to protect that richer vision.”

Universities’ capacity to sustain a reality-testing approach to knowledge – to insist on a value for it – goes to the heart of how they teach. “In some ways I think unis are caught between two philosophies they can’t get rid of,” says Professor Gregor Kennedy, pro vice-chancellor of educational innovation at the University of Melbourne. “The thinker philosophy: academic, content-oriented, on-campus, in a scholarly community; and the worker philosophy at the other end of the spectrum targeted to professional disciplines: experiential learning that takes students beyond the sandstone wall and gives them specific workforce skills.”

The two models broadly reflect old and new ideas of university education, he tells me, and there doesn’t have to be a clash between them.

“Of course we want thinkers to be workers, and workers to be thinkers.

“But the challenge for those who believe in the public value of the institution is to make a stronger argument for the thinker’s philosophy and about why we need it.”

Some of the submissions to the government’s discussion paper – including the Go8’s – strongly support restored or boosted living allowances for indigenous and disadvantaged students. Others like the idea of an equity regulator. Many urge reforms to the vocational training sector. There’s lots of support for more transparency in funding allocations in general, and for more government investment all round.

But it’s hard to find an argument for the kind of root-and-branch overhaul that would create the teaching-only universities Richard James would like to see. Scope for bold changes is clearly limited by the politics of politics too; with a slim House of Representatives majority and an unpredictable Senate, it’s not surprising the government has left behind the excitements of deregulation and adopted a more consultative mien. Changes to the demand-driven system, in particular, will be limited by the fact that many families experiencing higher education for the first time live in the outer suburban seats that governments have to hold if they want to remain governments.

As I leafed through submissions to the May discussion paper, I thought about Glyn Davis’ image of Hegel gathering pfennigs from his students, like an impecunious vicar passing around the collection plate. Then I thought about the fact that today German universities are free. The idea of massively funding Australian higher education to support a massively expanded system is not likely to be made in the foreseeable future. “Most VCs tend to lower their eyes with embarrassment when that argument is made,” Greg Craven says. When I spoke to Deakin’s Jane den Hollander about this, she didn’t mind making it, although only after emphasising that she prides herself on running tight budgets. “We’re one of the richest countries in the world, the most advantaged countries in the world, with a mere 23 million people, and we moan about the cost of educating our children. Shame on us. We are happier to allow someone to negatively gear 97 houses, we are happy to ensure that some people can avoid all sorts of tax, and we’re saying to a single parent that she has to pay her loan back no matter what and we don’t care. It’s just silly.”

One policy tweak that does seem likely is lower thresholds for student loan repayments; instead of starting to repay when they earn above $54,689, graduates could see their pay cheques docked somewhere around $45,000. Collecting unpaid student debt from deceased estates is also on the cards, as is a household income test for HELP loans. Almost everyone I spoke to thinks these are reasonable proposals. But they will only add to students’ debt, at a time when, according to the Go8, we are producing a graduate glut, and the debt burden will be more reasonable for some than others. Not so much for women, for instance, who comprise the majority of students in higher education. Women with bachelor degrees earn on average two thirds as much as their male counterparts over a lifetime; an AMP.NATSEM study found a woman with children takes twice as long to pay off her student loan as a man with children. Disadvantaged students who dropped out because they were too busy flipping burgers to keep up with their studies will presumably take even longer. This can’t be what we mean by expanding social inclusion. “Calling for a student who has not gained any meaningful financial advantage from their university education to repay their student debt,” Ben Etherington argues in a recent essay in the Sydney Review of Books, “is the economic equivalent of handing a credit card terminal to someone fleeing a bushfire in an ambulance.”

So much of our debate about higher education spending comes couched in terms of inevitability, unaffordability and the urgent necessity of meeting workforce needs. This is language that straps students and universities alike to an infernal rat-wheel of global competition for productivity and security.

In the US, students spend about half the hours per week studying for their classes that they did in 1961. This could be because digital delivery has made learning more efficient, but it’s probably because they’re too busy working to pay for those classes, or working for nothing in internships to get ahead of all their equally credentialed peers. In 1967, 86% of respondents to the CIRP Freshman Survey in the US considered “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” to be an essential or very important objective – double the number who ticked “being very well off financially”. Since then, the goals have switched: in 2015, 82% prioritised the money, 45% the meaningful philosophy.

It’s hardly surprising if students seem to be more focused on employment outcomes than ever. They know they’re entering a world of strenuous and unrelenting competition, because that’s what the world is constantly telling them. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last year that the governor of Wisconsin, whose state university is one of the great public systems in the US, had proposed rewriting the guiding mission of the University of Wisconsin. He wanted to remove language about improving the human condition. He specifically wanted to the delete the phrase “Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.” The new mission? To “meet the state’s workforce needs”.

What’s alarming is that in this moment of extraordinary global challenges, such as climate change, terrorism, and a brazen indifference to fact in so much political rhetoric, we’ve convinced ourselves that there’s no time to think. We know higher education should provide value for both individuals and industry. But it’s called higher education for a reason: universities, in particular, are places where, whatever course they choose, students can learn to think critically under the guidance of people whose job it is to spend time searching for better ideas about the world and how things work.

The hope remains that, by cultivating critical thinking and imagination, universities can help make students more curious and more interesting. Countless academics keep that ideal alive every day in labs and seminars around the country. But in Hannah Forsyth’s experience, many young people are, understandably, pragmatic about what they need to get out of uni, and they’re in a hurry to get it. They want “their bit of paper to say ‘I can be a history teacher’ as quickly as possible”, Forsyth tells me. “There’s not much time for dwelling in thought, or deeper reflection.”

About the author Thornton McCamish

Thornton McCamish is a Melbourne-based journalist and author. His latest book is Our Man Elsewhere: In search of Alan Moorehead.