New mood of antipathy spells long-term danger for universities

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Glyn Davis

Glyn Davis fears that unrest over high fee levels could have serious consequences for institutions in parts of the West. The Melbourne vice chancellor tells John O’Leary what they must do to weather the storm.

Public and political hostility towards universities in the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom could endanger those countries’ supremacy in global higher education, a leading vice chancellor believes.

In all three countries, there has been criticism of fee levels, teaching quality and the value of degrees, with high-profile politicians leading the onslaught. In both the UK and Australia, vice chancellors’ salaries have also been the subject of controversy.

Professor Glyn Davis, vice chancellor of the University Melbourne, said on a visit to London that these attitudes contrasted with the high esteem in which universities continued to be held in Asia and continental Europe. “Look what they are doing in Germany and France, where they have invested big-time since 2011. In lots of places, universities are not beleaguered – it’s happy days,” he said.

“These countries see universities as absolutely central to their future,” Professor Davis said in an interview for QS Showcase. “It’s a different view altogether and one that spells danger for us if the current scepticism develops.”

Professor Davis was in London to give the inaugural annual lecture for the UPP Foundation, in which he expanded on his theme. Universities in the three countries, which currently account for 32 of the top 50 institutions in the QS world rankings, were under pressure on a number of fronts, he said.

“We hear a rising chorus of complaints about arrogant universities that resist government priorities, that value research over teaching, that do not address community ambitions. In Britain and Australia higher education ministers have not held back – universities are labelled as inefficient, with overpaid vice chancellors and overly generous wages and conditions for staff in a time of austerity. These institutions seem ripe for ‘efficiency dividends’.”

Professor Davis spoke at the end of a “summer of discontent” over universities in the UK and as the Australian government tabled a budget which included proposals – subsequently defeated in the Senate – to cut university funding by AUD 2.8 billion. Education Minister Simon Birmingham had criticised university surpluses, and described institutions as burgeoning bureaucracies which benefit from “the rivers of gold” poured into them as student enrolments have grown.

“If this is what our champion in government thinks, the Minister for Education, what do the critics say?” Professor Davis asked.

In the US, meanwhile, a Pew Research poll had found that 58% of Republican voters viewed colleges and universities as negative influences on their country. Professor Davis said there was evidence of voter resentment against the perceived privilege of university graduates and their view of the world.

Nate Silver, the American polling analyst, argued that education levels, rather than economic disadvantage, best explain the shift of votes from Democrat to Republican in 2016, with Donald Trump receiving 71% of votes from non-college educated white males.

In Britain, Professor Davis said, the divide seemed equally sharp, with three out of four non-graduates voting to leave the European Union. “The reasons are not mysterious. People with a college degree steer the world toward technology-based employment which suits tertiary qualifications,” he added. “This accentuates social division amid the collapse of familiar vocational courses, the eclipse of apprenticeships, the destruction of earlier certainties about hard work, fairness and opportunity.

“Yet graduates are not happy either. They have accumulated unprecedented debt to take into a world of employment insecurity and unaffordable housing. The good life we promised can seem elusive. In Australia, as in Britain, there are signs of political impatience with the autonomy of universities and their failure to bend to government imperatives.”

Professor Davis said it was not hard to understand the frustration of elected politicians. “Universities pay little tax, yet are remorseless in asking for more public money. They champion themselves as innovators, yet resist political pressures for applied research and immediate impact.”

Much is at stake for the universities: a future government, impatient with contemplative institutions, might require some institutions only to teach, to be vocational, to specialise in just a few areas, to stay outside the rankings competition and serve local communities.

At the same time, some in the private sector were planning the imminent disruption of universities. “Technology, say the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley, will make all those expensive public universities redundant. No more campuses everywhere, no need to fund academics to do their own research,” Professor Davis suggested.

He cited the “nano degrees” offered by Udacity, the company founded by Sebastian Thrun, a former Stanford academic, as a prime example of the challenges ahead. Thrun could draw encouragement from the success of large private online teaching institutions such as Phoenix and Kaplan, and had speculated that “in 50 years, there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education”

Kaplan chief executive Andrew Rosen predicts that in 25 years, tertiary education will be structured around mobility, with students choosing courses from multiple providers. A co-founder of PayPal goes even further. “Tertiary study, suggests Peter Thiel, is just following old career tracks,” Professor Davis said. “Winning a place at a university is enough. Truly talented people don’t need to waste their time on campus. The USD 100,000 Thiel Fellowships reward young people who put aside study to focus instead on a new business idea. Thousands apply each year, hoping to be rewarded for not going to university.”

So far, Professor Davis noted, students have not deserted traditional higher education. “But popular sentiment is not running our way,” he added.

Universities would need to demonstrate that they offered value for money to students, graduates and society, Professor Davis said. But they should also create more meaningful links with their many constituencies, making a commitment to inclusion, innovation and sharing of knowledge.

He cited the community partnerships developed by the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where students work with local schools, urban farms are encouraged on campus, and a public common has been created next to the football stadium. “UPenn is determined to shed its image as a wealthy institution aloof from the surrounding city.”

In Australia, the Professor Davis’s university works with indigenous communities to share the advantages of teaching and research with people who might never set foot on campus. He cited other institutions that insist students do an internship or volunteer work before they can graduate. In addition, the University of Nottingham has programmes that encourage academics to work with charities and small business, while the University of Manchester commits to “listening to the wider community, and involving the public in our work.”

“When we engage, we encourage local forces to defend the value of universities whenever politicians stoke resentment,” he said. “We make clear the campus offers more than qualifications and traffic – the university is, in a real sense, part of the community. Or, in the words of the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, ‘If you want to build a great city, create a great university and wait 200 years’.”

Professor Davis asked in his lecture: “Is this turn toward engagement too little too late? Engagement alone will not end concerns about the modern university. These have deep roots in social divisions, student debt, incoherent government policy and too little diversity across the sector. Universities may decide to address public concerns face on, but is this moment still redeemable as time present and time past plot our shared future?”

“Cut off from the world, not contributing sufficiently to society, focused on a closed, interior existence – universities face doubts about their continued relevance,” he added. “And on the other side, there are entrepreneurs offering bright, shiny alternatives, new ways of delivering education that promise to be cheaper, faster and essentially private. Ministers have motive. Silicon Valley provides the means. Creative destruction awaits. We ignore this at our peril.

“Yet universities are not defenceless. There has been much thinking about mission and purpose. The role of the university in the world has become a quiet preoccupation for those within the walls. This is the imperative that adds a third strand to teaching and research. It is why engagement has quietly found an institutional home in most universities, building new links into community.”

The battle for public support was one that universities could not afford to lose, Professor Davis said later, because a likely consequence would be an eventual shift in the balance of power within global higher education. China, for example, was already less reliant on overseas universities to educate its elite, as it developed higher-quality universities of its own.

“In the very long run, it means that UK and Australia are going to face formidable competition – and the long run is not so far away. First mover’s advantage declines and if China and other Asian countries continue to invest, their universities are going to take off. We will go from having most of the best universities in the world to a much more even playing field.”

Glyn Davis has been vice chancellor and principal of The University of Melbourne, where he is also professor of political science, since January 2005. He retires at the end of the year. He was previously vicechancellor of Griffith University, in Brisbane, where he had lectured since 1985 and been a professor since 1998. Married to Professor Margaret Gardner, vice chancellor of neighbouring Monash University, he is widely regarded as the most influential university leader in Australia. He is chair of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government and at various times over the past decade, he has chaired Universities Australia and Universitas 21. At the same time, he has overseen a radical transformation of the curriculum at Melbourne into just six broad-based undergraduate degrees and more specialised graduate programmes. As a student, he took a BA in political science at the University of New South Wales and went on to a PhD at the Australian National University. He was also a Harkness Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, the Brookings Institution in Washington and the John F Kennedy School of Government, at Harvard. Professor Davis is the author of a number of works on public policy, and is co-author of The Australian Policy Handbook, now in its fifth edition. His latest book is The Australian Idea of a University, was published in late 2017.