Professors Evans’ and Young’s article in The Australian outlines a bleak future for undergraduate education at this university and at others across Australia. No longer, we are told, is it sustainable for young Australians to be afforded equitable access to tertiary education. Instead, low-SES students must fight it out for not-yet-existent “equity scholarships”, while the rest of us are left burdened with lifelong student loan debt, like the US $1 trillion owed by our peers “at the best American institutions”.
The article’s claim that “disciplines are disappearing as institutions decide they can no longer afford to offer them” reveals little about costs, and much about competing funding priorities within the university bureaucracy. It is no secret that undergraduate students receive the raw end of the stick when it comes to resourcing, with student fees funnelled to reputation-building research. Flustered lecturers try to squeeze the promised “research-led education” into 3 class hours per week, while students seek solace in headlines announcing that their institution has fared well in the latest world university ranking (also based on research outcomes, naturally).
We are assured that “Australian institutions do compete internationally on both quality and price and achieve excellent results”, while lamenting the absence of similar domestic competition. What is notably absent here is a justification for why domestic price competition would result in superior student outcomes given this stated success in a fiercely competitive international market. Does a competitive initiative launched to attract an international student to a particular university not equally benefit the domestic student who they sit next to in class? Or perhaps domestic students will be more attracted to the variety of expensive carrots dangled in front of prospective US college students, for example state of the art aquatic centres, which have little bearing on educational success at all. In any case, the array of glossy brochures, TV commercials, free tablet campaigns and other flashy recruitment activities undertaken by Australian universities provides a compelling display of thriving domestic competition right now.
One can only conclude that the ANU’s high command is out of touch with the lives and financial capacity of its student body. The example of a “first-class residential experience” created by additional funding is a poor one; it is a mark of pride that the renowned success of the ANU’s present residential experience stems mainly from the socio-economic diversity to be found in our halls and colleges, free from pomp and pretence. This is a good metaphor for the type of education that ANU students deserve.
The unfortunate reality is that many second tier universities are already offering far more supportive, dynamic and opportunity-laden degree programs than the ANU, all at current levels of funding. In fact the real crux of the problem is a persistent failure of Australian students and the firms that employ them to recognise true excellence in Australian undergraduate education. Perhaps the only improvement needed is the development of an effective mechanism to compare the various undergraduate degrees on offer, in order to incentivise and reward excellence in teaching and learning; the true measures of a quality education.