Hewson's View: Seize the moment for university reform

Construction work on the campus of the University of Melbourne last year. It's been argued that universities have too much capital tied up in buildings. Photo: Shutterstock
Construction work on the campus of the University of Melbourne last year. It's been argued that universities have too much capital tied up in buildings. Photo: Shutterstock

How can we explain the "prejudice" in the Morrison government against universities?

Is it just Morrison himself, as has been suggested to me, or is it more widespread across his government and the relevant bureaucracy?

Just why hasn't the government developed and implemented an effective strategy to support universities through the COVID-19 crisis, especially given their significance as an employer and an exporter, and to our national security and international standing?

This is an important question when you consider the other sectors that they have "prioritised".

Doesn't the need for a recovery strategy from COVID present a unique opportunity to force a reform and restructure of universities and higher education, along with a reset of our industrial base, an acceleration of the transition to a low-carbon Australia, and so on?

There are many reasons that may be offered to explain the "prejudice".

Universities have become fat, inefficient bureaucracies, paying excessive salaries to their top-end managers.

Universities have become excessively reliant on foreign students, to the detriment of domestic students.

Universities have been poor financial managers and tied up too much cash in buildings, ignoring the opportunities and requirements of online learning.

More broadly, universities are "elitist".

Universities are a breeding ground for "left-wing radicals", consistent "disrupters" and criticisers of our governments.

There are too many universities for a country of our size, a significant number of which were said to be "non viable" at the time of the Bradley Review back in the early Rudd days in 2008.

Obviously, there are elements of "truth" in all of these.

So why not take the opportunity to fix it?

This is a reform process that should be led nationally by the Morrison government, through the national cabinet, even though it could be argued that universities are more a state responsibility.

Why not begin with the recognition that universities have been poor financial managers, even recognising the many failures of governments to develop an effective funding strategy for universities and research?

Funding lifeline

Why not offer them a "funding lifeline" to get through the COVID crisis in the form of an income dependent loan, the repayment of which would be tied to the recovery of their revenues, especially as foreign students return?

It should also be tied to an effective restructure of university bureaucracies, to eliminate the fat and excess, built on independent efficiency audits, including a review of their investment strategies and funds management.

This should be done in relation to each university, as well as across the whole university sector, with considerable consideration given to the possible amalgamation of universities, perhaps with more specialisation, rather than each university "wanting to be all things to all people" that has resulted in excessive duplication and an incapacity to maximise the effectiveness of the limited skill (teaching and research) base.

Although universities would deny it, they have also been slow to recognise the significance of technology to an effective restructure of their teaching and research, the need for and use of buildings, and so on.

For example, the "old school" model of large classes requiring large lecture halls and large buildings to house them, are being increasingly outmoded with the significantly enhanced capacity and effectiveness of online education.

A significant consequence of this is that universities have far too much capital tied up in buildings, that could easily be "released" by rolling buildings into a property trust, whereby the universities get up-front cash, but are also able to guarantee their longer-term space requirements by way of a long-term lease, the terms of which they can lock-in in developing the trust.

This trust(s) could be national, and/or government backed, or done university by university.

In considering these sort of restructure proposals I have a concern as to how such a reform agenda would be driven within the government, and whether current university managers have the imagination, vision, and capacity to carry it out?

The vested interests in minimising change are disturbing.

Ad hoc "adjustments" such as the recent decision to downplay arts and humanities in favour of STEM etc, all too easily lose sight of the true role and responsibilities of universities in our society.

Definitely a time for a rethink and a reset of our universities.

  • John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.
This story Seize the opportunity for university reform first appeared on The Canberra Times.