Australian higher education in 2013

Here’s a column I will have published in the first quarterly newsletter of the UK-based Society for Research in Higher Education (SRHE).

2013 in Australia has started with searing, record-breaking temperatures across the country. It has also started with almost daily analysis of the chances of the rivals for the top job of Prime Minister in what will be an election year. The current Labor Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, faces off against the current leader of the Liberal opposition, Tony Abbott.

Having survived a tough year in 2012, filled with controversy and close shaves, Gillard’s popularity has risen slightly, particularly following the ‘misogyny speech’ in parliament, the recording of which went viral internationally late last year. But Gillard has numerous challenges to overcome to retain power. On the other hand, Abbott has an image problem, particularly with women, who perceive him to be sexist and macho. The papers and social media have been filled with debate and discussion about his clumsy attempts to use his female staff and wife and daughters in staged media events to prove how much he loves women.

Commentators have begun predicting the key factors on which the election result will be decided. These include gender alongside economic management, carbon pricing, health and education, among others. While a traditionally Labor concern, a focus on education, however, does not necessarily highlight higher education.

Higher education is not a vote catcher in Australia. Part of the issue is that, like Abbott, Australian higher education suffers from an image problem. However, instead of finding it offensive, as many women find Abbott’s approach to politics, the Australian public are largely indifferent to university education.

A number of factors contribute to the low profile of Australian higher education. These include: the general discomfort in the community, outside the elite, around celebrating academic achievement; the egalitarian culture that urges giving everyone a ‘fair go’ and, therefore, not wanting to promote something to which everyone does not have equal access; the lack of connection between higher education and the national obsession – sport; and the absence of good PR for higher education generally, despite the myriad and enormous contributions it makes to advancing society and the lives of citizens.

What may be necessary in an election year, where economic management will be front and centre in voters’ minds, is to convince the public and through them, the government, that higher education is not a cost, but an investment. I wonder who might take up this challenge, however, in a competitive and demand-driven system where universities are focused on competing with each other for students and funding.

The elite universities in Australia keep pointing to the fact that the sector is only partly deregulated and calling for price deregulation to create a more market-oriented sector. We’ve started to see how well that has worked in the UK and the consequences for institutions and individuals. But it does seem to work well for the government who are relieved, to some extent, from the responsibility of funding higher education. This could be appealing to either side of politics in Australia.

The election is likely to be toward the end of the year. In the meantime, the daily discussions about Gillard and Abbott, or Julia and Tony as we prefer to call them here, continue. May the best (wo)man for higher education win.

Marcia Devlin is an adjunct professor at two Australian universities and a higher education commentator. Twitter: @MarciaDevlin