Thursday, 30 October 2014

History in parliament...

I'm in Broken Hill doing research now. Between rural knowledge I was floored to find myself mentioned in parliament this week - with a quote from my book acting as the climax for Kim Carr's speech. Excuse the following link (blogging from my phone) but check it out:;db=CHAMBER;id=chamber%2Fhansards%2F7fb8a854-501b-4ea4-b493-3a180fcf5bf7%2F0227;query=BillId_Phrase%3A%22r5325%22%20Dataset%3Ahansardr,hansards%20Title%3A%22second%20reading%22;rec=2

Monday, 6 October 2014

How do I get hold of the book?

I've had a few messages lately asking about getting hold of a copy of the book. 

There are plenty of bookshops stocking the hard copy. Try your local independent bookshop or your university bookstore and you should be fine.

You can also order it through the co-op bookstore or through NewSouth Publishing. For eBook readers, it is also available on iBook and Kindle.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Vice-chancellors have missed their opportunity to display real scholarly leadership.

There are several mysteries associated with current government proposals for higher education, but few are as inscrutable as the recent behaviour of many of Australia’s vice-chancellors. 

In the early 1990s when Sydney Vice-Chancellor John ward reflected on the changes wrought largely by the integration of universities with the global knowledge economy, he pondered on the changes to his own role since the early 1980s. The pull of stakeholders – government, professions, industries and the public service – were remoulding university administration. Higher education would be less collegial and more managerial from here on.

Read the article at

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Book launch

Actual physical copies of my book landed on my desk this week. It comes out 1 October I think. The book launch is at 5pm on Friday 3rd October at Gleebooks. Registration for the event (helps with catering and whatnot) is at

It was exciting, but also a bit weird seeing it. Kind of distancing, like it was written by someone else...

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Maybe free university didn’t improve access for all, but neither will fee deregulation

Education Minister Christopher Pyne defied historical orthodoxy last week by declaring Gough Whitlam’s free tertiary education a failure. Free education only helped reinforce the place of the rich, Pyne argued.
Pyne is right. And yet this is also a spectacular misuse of history. As a historian, I hate bad history. But in this case the stakes are much higher than my discipline’s lofty principles. Pyne’s proposals for higher education bode ill for equity and Australia’s economic competitiveness.
History can help us with policy, but only if we properly understand it.

Read more at:

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Is it true Whitlam's free education mainly helped the middle class?

I have no wish to go into competition against the ABC's excellent fact checking habits, but I thought I'd share the answer to a question I was posed on Facebook this morning. 

"Christopher Pyne claimed on ABC RN this morning that when Whitlam abolished university fees, it did not change the demographic composition of the student body, ie "all the middle class people planning on going to university anyway now simply went for free", and it did not lead to greater participation by lower ses groups. Opinions? Data?"

Here's what I said:
Pyne is using the same data and argument that was used in establishing HECS. Yes, for the most part demographics did not shift with the - relatively small - expansion at the Whitlam reforms. But we should remember there were only a few years of expansion really - by the end of the 70s unemployment among university graduates was growing so that growth stagnated.

In the 1980s when they wanted to know what the effect of free education was, found that the new group was mature-age women. In a period where women's participation was still lower than it needed to be introducing HECS and impacting that was a big loss. But women now exceed men in numbers (though not benefits of higher ed of course).

The expansion that Pyne won't discuss is post-Dawkins. HECS was a really excellent system that addressed the equity concern with free education (working class taxes paying for the perpetuation of elite advantage), funded the only REALLY significant expansion universities have seen and included attention to equity. There were and remain problems with equity, but they were not caused by the HECS system.

Deregulation is absolutely not the same thing as this and I am angry about using the pro-HECS arguments for deregulation. Deregulation will be disastrous, not only for equity (despite scholarships…) but for the labour market in general. Not straight away…give us a decade. I am furious with the VCs for supporting this, though it shows that are beyond hope as the ones who will reform the system (I admit I did have some hope, for a while…). This is very bad policy, in fact, for everyone. It will help the Go8 bottom line, but not for long. In a decade we will have raised fees as high as the middle class can bear, low-SES families will have to be advised to stay out of higher education because the cost benefit doesn't add up and we will be heading towards an under-skilled and under-competitive labour market...

I was then asked: So how do we explain the huge expansion of staffing in universities in the 70s - if it was not in response to increasing student numbers - where did those rivers of gold come from?

Oh it did grow - figures are [in the book...out soon!]- and quite a lot, it just did not make the mass system that we see today. But growth slowed really dramatically c.1978. The system was confused. They were still benefiting from the Murray review all through the 1960s, the baby boom helped late 60s to mid-70s. Universities believed they would continue to grow. They were crowded and the government funded new universities…some of which opened at exactly the wrong time. The oil shocks had that unexpected effect on the economy and stagnation in growth in student numbers hit universities in the late 70s. Universities had NO experience with responding to that. By 1981 they were in trouble…

I wrote a bit about this with Tim Pitman earlier in the year, see

Monday, 28 July 2014

M of M

I was reading Stephen Matchett's blog on my way to work recently and was a bit surprised to find myself there (my name was spelled incorrectly but I still knew it was me).

Here is what he said:

"Oh good, a new analysis of the unhappy condition of overworked, underpaid, universally oppressed Australian academics (deans and above excluded) in time for the deregulation debate. The last was by Richard Hils, the understated Whackademia (2012) and now Hannah Forsythe (Australian Catholic University) has a manifesto of misery to relate, at least on the basis of the blurb for her book, due from New South Press come spring. “Universities today are plagued with ingrained problems. More than 50 per cent of the cost of universities goes to just running them. They now have an explicit commercial focus. They compete bitterly for students and funding. Scholars rarely feel their vice-chancellors represent them and within their own ranks, academics squabble for scraps.” I am sure she means universities other than ACU."

He couldn't have read it yet - I had not quite even finished writing it! Of course (unlike Whackademia - which I am sorry to say I did not like at all) A History of the Modern Australian University does not, despite this comment, join the Jeremiad school of university books. It is not blindly optimistic either, however. Most importantly, what it is, is FINISHED (well, I'm still finalising the Index…)! Manifesto of Misery, out in October. Oh and ACU is not left off any hooks, nor are any other universities with which I've been associated.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Why deregulation (not fees) is the problem

The federal education minister, Christopher Pyne, says his changes to higher education including fee increases and deregulation of the sector will be fairer, since those who benefit from higher education will not draw on the taxes of those less fortunate. Others oppose it, suggesting higher fees will deter low socio-economic students, making universities havens for the rich. The problem with these arguments is that both overlook the source of the problem. By focusing on fees, it keeps the debate in a space that Pyne can win.


Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Dear vice-chancellors. This was your moment. And you missed it.

Andrew Norton’s support of Christopher Pyne’s anticipated higher education reforms in The Age, even before the budget was announced is no real surprise, since (with David Kemp) he suggested many of them. 

More surprising is the way the vice-chancellors - especially the Group of Eight - fed Pyne the lines with which to screw everything up.

So we've all got the gist of the plans, right? It seems that Pyne plans to overhaul the type and manner of students’ financial contribution to higher education. Adjustments to the proportion of students’ contribution have been under discussion for a long time. There are some good arguments for reconsidering this share, certainly in some areas of study, but for Pyne, it seems that such a change to fee structures should also come with a broader deregulation of the system. This would see private colleges ‘competing’ with universities for students.

This policy seems to have the support of the Group of Eight universities and several of their vice-chancellors. In his London speech, Minister Pyne used University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis’ line ‘Competition between universities is good. It keeps you focused on your students’. It was thoughtful of Professor Davis* to give Pyne such a quote, for it aligns perfectly with what both Pyne and Norton believe about higher education: that increased competition is the best way to make universities better.

More money would help too, acknowledges Norton; so why not combine the two ideals? If universities need to compete harder to get additional money, they need to offer real quality education. Then they will be able to compete with those pesky overseas institutions that keep encroaching on our international student market.

There have been disturbing hints that Pyne holds the United States’ higher education sector as an ideal to which Australian universities should aspire. Sometimes in the past such aspirations have really only meant Harvard. This is problematic given that Harvard is wealthier than many small countries: no Australian university will ever be able to ‘compete’ with that. It is hard to believe that Pyne means anything beyond Harvard, however, for it is widely acknowledged – even from a conservative point of view – that the rest of American higher education is in real trouble and so (as a result) is the labour market that they feed. This is because, as I hinted a few days ago, more is at stake than whether a university degree adds wealth to your life as opposed to not getting a degree. Now, entering many segments of the labour market just can't be done without a university degree anymore. Think of all the professions that you now need to go to university to enter. It started with Engineering, then included Accounting. Later Business. Then Teaching, Nursing. Journalism. Even Policing is becoming a university thing. Wine making, even. Pretty much anything that leads to money or power in Australia means sending your children through university. Universities no longer need to persuade people that what they offer is valuable: they've captured the gateway to nearly any decent job at all.

In some disciplines, the degree your receive is far, far more likely to support you to get a job if it is from an elite university. So - as in the United States - when the fee disparity between universities also reflects their elitism this holds the middle class to ransom - pay or lose socio-economic status. This has burdened the middle class with debts that they have been able to afford - until now. Fees can't increase further. For universities, their costs continually matched their rate of growth so that NOW, now that they have reached the point where the middle class can no longer bear any more fee increases and low-SES people can't afford to go at all (but also can't really afford not to), universities are in trouble. Salaries keep increasing, buildings keep needing repairs, costs keep increasing but fees can't. Big problem for universities, of course, but what about society? All those jobs need doing by people with degrees; innovation, fuelled by educated thinkers underpins national competitiveness; but higher education is decreasingly positioned to make those things happen.

Aspirational people from low-SES backgrounds have far more challenges than that and, in America, many were persuaded to invest in higher education only to find the other pressures were too high, leaving them WORSE OFF since they now have educational debt that is of no value to them since they did not finish - and which sometimes they can now not repay, leading to the downward spiral of defaulted debt and…you can see the problem. 

Australian universities have been protected from many of America's problems (both internally and in the labour market), largely by HECS – thus far, anyway. But for the Norton-Pyne-Kemp ideology of competition to work, students need to be LESS protected by HECS, otherwise the competitive process they idealise can't function. So Andrew Norton's History, which he says in this article shows that low-SES students are not put off by fees, needs some work - or at least some nuancing, for it is HECS THE WAY IT IS NOW that has protected everyone. And we can not exactly call the current system a success in socio-economic terms, for low-SES participation (particularly in rural Australia and among Aboriginal students) is abysmally low and has barely improved in twenty years…until we had some recent work on the problem, which shows some slight improvements, but still a long way to go.

Nevertheless, the desire for Australian universities to be competitive in ways that go beyond crude (and largely useless) global rankings underpins the push for deregulation. Both Pyne and Norton seem persuaded that, universally, more competition will breed quality. It sounds good. But they are overlooking a few things.

Firstly, no private college will ever compete with our big, old elite and public universities. Of course the Group of Eight can support increased competition because they will not actually have any. Australia's public university system is unlike the USA's or even Britain's in this respect. The Universities of Melbourne and Sydney especially, but also Adelaide, Queensland, UWA, ANU, Monash and UNSW, can happily sit atop the competitive pile and, in a deregulated system, charge the highest fees. [This is not an excuse, dear Go8 vice-chancellors, for your job should have gone beyond the level of self-interest you're showing here to a type of leadership that cared not only for your own institutions and not even just for the sector but also for society and Australia's labour market]. 

Higher education in Australia is not the same market as private schooling. Wealthy, elite parents expect their children to get into (say) Sydney or Melbourne on government-supported places. In fact, for some, this is the purpose of paying all those private school fees. No fee-paying college or university has a chance of competing for the elitism of these old bastions of socio-economic advantage. And Andrew Norton’s article shows that that is not the purpose of private colleges anyway.

Private sector colleges are not proposed in order to make the elite universities work harder to get the best students and teach them in a manner that keeps the flow of good students flowing; they are there to sequester low-SES students who have a lower ATAR away from the elite. These impoverished students will pay fees – lower fees than at university to be sure – in pathway programs that may or may not make up for the reality that the education system was designed to ensure a vast majority of their more privileged peers get into commonwealth supported places at the top universities while their own chances are far smaller. There is, embedded in this role, no prospect of competition between the private sector and the elite universities. They will clearly not be comparable institutions.

Even if there were actual competition at stake, the argument that competition stimulates quality still does not work. It is true that in many areas of economic life competition and quality go hand in hand. But in universities, Norton’s approach to ‘demand’ ignores the reality that there is no structural connection between the sources of quality and the sources of competition. Not one academic teacher has ever sat in a classroom determined to do a good job because they want to ensure the university’s marketing team meets their targets. What is frustrating about this is that many academics, myself included, agree that quality in Australian universities needs some real attention. Blindly believing that competition will breed quality without examining how quality is actually made is ideology, not policy.

It is certainly time, too, that the nation’s least advantaged students stop getting the blame for quality failures in the system. The correlation of low-SES and low ATAR that Andrew Norton noted should constitute a national emergency, for it is statistically unlikely that poorer people are in fact any less intelligent. We do the nation and our education systems a disservice by giving up on them as we often have. It is the same as sport. If the only people who make the national sporting teams were those able to pay for elite coaching we KNOW we are missing out on the nation's best talent. When the elite universities mainly attract students from certain SES backgrounds, we also miss out on the best, regardless of ATAR. We have evidence, even. Once low-SES students make it past their first year, they do as well and often better than their more privileged peers. The last thing any educational reform should do is add barriers and costs to their pathway to success. Indeed everyone loses if we do. No one actually benefits from impoverished under-educated communities, not even wealthy conservatives.

What has me confused is why university leaders are not making this case. For while we might well expect this ideology-based policy from politicians and the report-writers that they commission, there is no excuse for the fact that it has been the vice-chancellors feeding Pyne the lines he has needed to potentially sabotage a higher education system that needs work of a far different kind.

* Disclosure. I participate in a research project on the history of universities that includes Melbourne VC Glyn Davis as a chief investigator. Clearly (from this post) this association does not mean I feel unable to criticise him or the role of the Go8 VCs.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Sharrock is right, too.

Also this one, on fees, works too, for the most part And I should also mention how much I appreciate the conversations that The Conversation has enabled in recent times - which is to say, the discussion going on in the comments is great too.

Although Sharrock is pretty right, generally I think the 'how much will I have to pay?' is the wrong question to ask about this budget, which ought to be asking why the Group of Eight have fed the government everything they needed to argue for this when they claim they don't know how the market will behave (that is…I am pretty sure they are pretty confident). They are confident not only because of their market position, but because the labour market now demands degrees - and increasingly demands elite ones. If you wish to enter the labour market and you're not suited to a trade (hello, most women…and plenty, plenty of others), people will HAVE to pay to go to uni or they won't get a job. Putting this is a consumer 'choice' or an 'investment' is misleading…and it is utterly ridiculous to think the VCs of elite universities are speaking as objective academic observers when they choose the way they talk about this.

I am cranky with the government over what looks like utterly irresponsible policy. But I am furious with the vice-chancellors, who ought to know better and who are there to give the government and the public good advice, not this commercially self-interested crap.

Did I mention being cranky?

Marginson is right

Over the past few years I've occasionally taken issue with something Simon Marginson says. But in the article absolutely everything he says is 100% spot on. This is the thing to read about the effects of Pyne on higher education...

For example:

"The leading universities can also put money into scholarships for students from under-represented social groups, but the use of academic criteria for entry ensures that they will continue to be dominated by families from affluent backgrounds that can afford to invest in academically strong secondary schools."


Tuesday, 13 May 2014


There is plenty going on to comment on I know - and plenty people commenting. I will join in. But not yet (a bit busy)….

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Those who benefit could pay...

I read this morning that our current education minister thinks that university graduates should pay for more of their education because they benefit considerably.

It seems that all the VCs agree that students need to pay more (or more likely they think that SOMEONE ought to pay more and think that students are the ones that the current government is most likely to look to).

I also read that it is possible that HELP (used to be called HECS) debt repayments might begin at 32,000 because the government needs them paid back or else something bad might happen.

Fee policy is not quite my field I'll admit, but I do think the HECS system (pretty much what we have) designed by 1980s Labor is excellent. I don't mind the idea that the people who benefit should share some of the cost. This is partly what prevents working class Australia from over-subsidising the education of the elite.

In fact, I think the education minister should think seriously about asking the people who benefit the most to contribute teh highest share.

If I was reforming the fee system, I'd start by adding a graduate tax to HECS aimed at the people who benefit from their education the most. Start it in a small way at (say) those university graduates earning more than $80,000 a year and increase it from there. Doing it this way rather than with the HELP debt would make sure those who benefit really are the ones who pay.

And really, how much does the government reckon they can squeeze out of graduates earning $32,000 and paying rent in Sydney? Doesn't sound like much of a solution to me...

Monday, 7 April 2014

Vice-chancellor salaries and university quality

Oh my goodness, we need more quality and we need it now! We better pay some more people a lot of money at the top of our institutions to make quality happen. Quick, bring in the DVCs. No not that one, a new one.

Also, pay the VC more.

How do we know we have more quality? Oh we have MEASURES, don't you worry.

Oh yes, those lazy academics from whom we will need to squeeze the aforementioned increase in quality will complain about VC salaries, whinge whinge. But how on earth would we have quality universities if we paid vice-chancellors less money?

Check out this study that shows that Australian vice-chancellors earn significantly more than their counterparts in the USA and UK.

Of course VC salaries are an easy target. They are so obviously stupidly inflated that (from an analytical perspective) it is like shooting fish in a barrel (which actually doesn't sound that easy, now that I think about it).

But the brilliant thing about this VC salary study is the question of whether universities actually get what they pay for. And it seems we don't. Universities where VCs earn more are not better than those where VCs earn less.

And as for the quality measures. The wonderfully mathematical thinker in Melbourne, Emeritus Professor Frank Larkins confirms what we all know just by looking: adjustments to ERA rankings are achieved strategically, not by actually improving quality - 'quality' improvements are due "almost entirely to gaming the system rather than changing the quality of the research being produced".

That is why universities will bring in a DVC to address 'quality'. Their job is not to actually to make quality, right? It is NOT about shaping the research conditions at any university so it is the sort of place where quality work can happen; or to ensure teaching loads are not so excessive that academics can do good research; or to offer early career casual scholars a little bit of financial certainty so they concentrate and do the innovative work they are itching to do; or to give PhD students a desk. No, it is to 'game the system'.

That is so worthwhile I think we should pay them a bit more, don't you?

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Universities that help shore up structures of white supremacy

[This is a fragment from Chapter two: Universities make a grab for power, largely focused on the Columbo Plan]

Australia’s role in all this looks, on the surface, fairly peripheral. A key element of Australia’s Cold War foreign policy, however, deployed the universities in the task of preventing South and South East Asia from succumbing to the lures of communism. The ‘Colombo Plan’ was a foreign aid scheme intended to support increased living standards in Asia, which Australian foreign policy experts believed would help curb the spread of communism. They also believed that Australian commitment to economic development in Asia would encourage investment in the region by the United States. This would release Australia and Great Britain, both governments hoped, from some of their financial responsibilities in Asian countries whose infrastructure was affected during the Second World War – or (as in India) who lent Britain money to conduct it.  The plan worked, from that perspective anyway. Persuading nations, potentially over the course of decades, that communism was not the answer to their problems, needed more than some aid money, however, particularly in light of resentment through much of Asia about Australia’s White Australia Policy. Money was not enough: Asian nations needed to see and even feel that their big, capitalist neighbour was on their side (White Australia Policy notwithstanding, for Australian governments had no plan to dismantle that).  Designers of the Colombo Plan turned to higher education to help.

From 1951 to 1964, more than five thousand students from South and South East Asia studied at Australian universities, sponsored by the Colombo Plan.  The idea was that these students would return home, taking up jobs among Asia’s political and financial elite. Stories of their wonderful experience in Australia would inform the decisions they made in such roles. It did not quite work like that, for only a minority of Colombo Plan students took such leadership roles. Nevertheless, in the 1970s while Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister was a Colombo Plan graduate, so too were four cabinet ministers in Indonesia.

Ensuring that these students had an experience that contradicted the received wisdom across South and South East Asia that Australia was profoundly racist was an important task. The Commonwealth Office of Education made every effort to ensure they had a positive experience. Academically, they gave Colombo Plan students significant support: an education officer spoke regularly with them about their progress and, if need be, paid for extra tuition. This worked well – the pass and graduation rates of Colombo Plan students easily exceeded those for Australian-born students.

While a key aim of the Plan was to make Australia look less racist to Asian students, there was more to it than just giving them a brilliant Australian experience. The intention was also to assist in Asian economic development. The courses Colombo Plan students enrolled in were to be ‘useful’ at home (and they also needed to sign a guarantee that they would return home, too). Acceptance into the Colombo Plan’s scholarship scheme was dependent on approval by the Department of External Affairs whose criterion (for eligible countries) was whether the degree was in a priority area for growing the economy of the student’s home country.  

Colombo Plan students were not the only ones enrolled in Australian universities from Asia. Private overseas students also took places in Australian higher education institutions. Without the additional support of the Commonwealth Office of Education, these students did not have the same experience. Although they were very few indeed, proponents of the Colombo Plan nevertheless feared that they might return home with negative stories, undermining some of the Colombo Plan’s work. Results were mixed. Overall it appears the Colombo Plan succeeded in inclining well-supported students towards Australian people. But despite higher education doing its best to cover up the White Australian Policy’s claim to white superiority, no visitor was persuaded that the policy was anything other than an expression of racism, legitimised in immigration policy. 

The Cold War represents the height of this complex use of education for foreign policy objectives, but the idea did not come from thin air. The Carnegie Corporation, for example, funded educational research and libraries in Australia since the 1930s with a view to influencing Australian culture in ways that favoured the interests of the United States.  The pattern continued in the post-war period, with agreements brokered by Senator Fulbright executing the belief that sharing knowledge would engender greater understanding of other nations and cultures, ensuring peace and prosperity (especially for America).  The Rockefeller Foundation’s philanthropic activities in Australia were similarly focused to sharing knowledge, specifically in fostering the new research culture that became a significant weapon during the Second World War.  These schemes show us that universities, governments and wealthy philanthropists were aware of the role of higher education in influencing ideas and in shaping economies, labour markets and political frameworks, even in shoring up the structures of white supremacy. Moreover, they were not reluctant to develop or wield that power.

[There are lots of footnotes here, acknowledging the work of other historians who have researched this. They will be in the book]