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How to avoid being the runt of the tertiary education litter

We need competition in supply and funding of individuals not institutions Julia Gillard wisely remarked last month that competition with Asia could “make us the runt of the litter” in terms of our educational performance. This provocative remark should trigger urgent application to government policy, given that increasingly unlike much of Asia, ours is a state-owned tertiary model. Our university communities are not offered the diversity of choice as in the USA, or indeed as in our own secondary and primary schools. New technology and social networks allow leapfrog in terms of ways of sharing information. All universities could jump ahead by using such remote devices to augment teaching, writing and research frameworks across broader international markets. However Socratic face-to-face “tutorial” and live lecture modes remain vitally important – the “getting of wisdom” is too important to be on iPads or lonely PCs. And rote learning and massive data availability, do not make for the educated and creative man or woman, a real problem in parts of Asia. But for us to ignore the opportunities raised by technologies is also unwise.

What Policies does the PM Propose?

The Report from the Lomax-Smith committee on options for financing tertiary education proposes more top down centralised controls and rules. Little mention is made of the private sector, even though Asia is shifting that way.

The Prime Minister has set up the Asian Century project, under former Treasury head Ken Henry AC, and some real expertise is on board. This report could and should address education challenges and competitive partnership opportunities with US and Asian countries. But it is divestment and partnerships, and less direct control from Canberra that could really transform our universities.

Private sector, mining wealth and higher education

Interestingly, many new tertiary institutions across Asia are private, with Japan and Korea having 80% in private higher education; in China the figure is 25% and rising.

In terms of best external practice in university financing, the US shows what can be done with surges of private wealth, tax deductions for foundations, and reduced controls.

Universities financed by religious orders and private philanthropy now star in terms of global research. Eighty seven Nobel Laureates have come from the University of Chicago – started on Rockefeller money and a Baptist order. Sadly, it was Labor and John Dawkins who attacked the very notion of independent private universities, and who forced mergers and reclassifications. Creating numbers of “places” at “vanilla” public universities. As I personally experienced, Dawkins opposed the willingness of the Myer, Murdoch and Pratt contingent to help start a private university process down-under in the late 1980s.

Perhaps the Asian Century is the time to think again, to structure a model with genuine excellence on both the private and public sides.

The HECS innovation of Bruce Chapman under Minister Dawkins, gave us an innovative contingent loan model that could now apply across the board to other investments in human capital.

Both private and public universities could be funded largely by students receiving interest subsidies, HECS loans and scholarships. These transfers could be according to aptitude, foreign and refugee status and need.

Equally importantly, why not divest an initial 10% of state tertiary institutions, much in the manner of Victorian power stations under Kennett? We could invite tenders from a consortia of Australian and international university entities under new liberal educational ownership rules. Funds raised could be ploughed back in funding of students. This divestment and student funding strategy could become a competition for brilliant minds, financiers and managers to run independent universities absent of interference from Canberra. With international students and institutions creating an even more diverse and creative Australia. We already know from experience in schools and overseas that the model works.

The Asian Century could also build on the US tertiary model – the model preferred by most post-graduate Chinese. If we go that independent and divesting route, we could allow the Rinehart’s and other mineral magnates some tax deductions like those Rockefeller and Carnegie received early in the 20th Century for donating so much wealth to education. We would then have an exciting 21st Century down under. There is no shortage of potentially devoted and brilliant scholars world-wide who would love to come to Australia.

At the end of the 1980s the Tasman University initiative was supported by outstanding business leaders in Australia and by New Zealand’s PM David Lange and Finance Minister Roger Douglas. This exploration confirmed the interest of top US, Asian and European academics and universities in joining university partnerships and accepting adjunct professorships. But then Australian Education Minister John Dawkins opposed the model and scared others away.

In 2012, the increasing wealth of Australia, and the growth in Asia should make public divestment of, and private investment in Australian tertiary education an exciting opportunity.

Rather than confuse education with language courses and visa applications, we could get on the front foot with competitive public and private tertiary educational excellence.

There are already signs of such happenings in Australia. Allowing such tertiary educational flowers to bloom could be a unique contribution of the Gillard government recognised in perpetuity. So Prime Minister: we need not be the “runt of the litter” in education, but the “envy of the world”, to use your words.

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