Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Letter to the 'Australian Universities' Review'

The letter below appeared in the 'Australian Universities Review' earlier this year.

Dear Editor,

I found Tony Aspromourgos’ contribution “The managerialist university: an economic interpretation” (AUR 54(2) 44-49) both perceptive and valuable. However, I think it comes to an overly ‘optimistic’ conclusion about the lack of competition between Australian universities facilitating a continuing decline in standards.

This is due to a premise I consider to be one of the symptoms of managerialism, the assumption that university students are ‘consumers’ of a ‘product’ provided by universities.

While this is one basis from which to make an economic analysis of the higher education market, an alternative economic conception is one in which students are not the consumers, but are themselves the product. It then becomes evident that the majority of Australian universities are overwhelmingly dependent on a single customer, the Commonwealth Government, which funds the sector in order to produce skilled citizens for the nation’s requirements.

Ultimately the actions of this dominant customer will depend on all of us, acting collectively through our elected representatives. In aggregate we are relatively well-informed and cost conscious. Just as if we were buying beer, we taxpayers will seek to buy the best product at the best price for each application of higher education for which we see a collective need. If the Australian product becomes uncompetitive in terms of cost or quality, this means we will buy the imported product.

A hundred years ago, we imported most of our professionals, and sent most of our bright researchers overseas to carry out their research. We still do this to a large extent today. As a relatively small country remote from the world’s main centres of economic and intellectual activity, this was (and is) a perfectly rational course of action.

As a nation we might well decide that it would be cheaper to train our professionals overseas; that we would be better off just using the results of research carried out overseas rather than funding it ourselves; and that we could achieve mass tertiary education most efficiently through overseas-based online institutions. I think a cost-benefit analysis based purely on economic arguments would support this decision. And if the behavior of universities has for a generation actively undercut the non-economic arguments for their existence, this decision will be nigh-impossible to challenge.

Australian universities do not form a closed system which can gracefully decline until graduates see no relative benefit in obtaining a degree. The services we provide to the nation are part of a competitive globalised economy. They can be sourced elsewhere. Thus, if we continue along our current path, it is entirely possible that the managerialist mindset will see the entire Australian higher education sector ‘managed’ into irrelevance. 

Yours Sincerely,

                       Chris Fellows