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A student's view of 'big business' universities



'We won't have classes next Monday because of the public holiday on Tuesday.' My tutor tells us this in a cheery voice, as if he has done us a favour by cancelling one out of the ten classes we'll have in this subject.

Empty lecture theatreThe tute feels crowded every week, about 30 of us in an engineering classroom which has chairs for maybe two thirds of our current number. Every week we spend time shuffling around to nearby rooms to gather enough chairs for us all to even sit down.

I'm currently studying a degree that costs $4000 each semester. That translates to about $60 per hour of actual teaching time.

This includes one subject where instead of being able to meet with faculty members, we must skype them once a week. If that's not the most expensive skype call ever made, then perhaps the critics are correct, and young people should stop complaining about the potential increase of tertiary fees.

Under speculation the government plans to cut a significant amount of funding to tertiary institutions, it is predicted each student's fees could go up by $3600. People are angry, and rightly so. Many of the people making these decisions for us on Capital Hill represent Australians who were tertiary educated for free.

Scott Morrison is an example of this. He studied at the University of New South Wales and for the first three years he would have done so under the Whitlam model of university. His final honours year may have coincided with the introduction of HECs, which was a single payment of $1800 per student. Today his same qualification would cost a student roughly $48,000.

It can be frustrating to hear politicians talk about significant cuts to education clinically, but it's worth investigating the other players in these cuts and how they are equally responsible. There's a long history of university management working alongside government to further their own profit, despite recommendation from their academic staff and students.

In 2015, the biggest advocates for deregulation of fees were the chancellors of the Group Of 8 universities, which include Sydney University, Melbourne University, Monash, Australian National University and the University of New South Wales.


"I would rather pay taxes for good quality services rather than excessive fees for Australian university education — which is not even world leading despite its price."


Over the past week I've heard countless criticism of the government and seen the mobilisation of students ready to protest these measures, but perhaps some of the burden — as argued by Binoy Kampmark — should lie on these students' own chancellors and vice chancellors who have consistently over many years undermined the belief in educational access in Australia.

A Deloitte Access Economics study found that while the cost of delivery of education by universities grew by 9.5 per cent, the revenue between 2010 and 2015 grew by 15 per cent. It's hard to justify through these figures an increase in funding. Perhaps the problem is the autonomy Australian tertiary institutions have in operating like private companies, rather than an integrated and necessary service provider of education.

The study revealed universities receive sufficient revenue, through both student fees and government funding, which covers the costs of teaching most degrees. Under a Scandinavian model of university, where students pay no fees to attend university, the institution itself is a government service, meaning any profit made is redistributed to the taxpayer through other services. Having a similar comprehensive and uniform education sector in Australia would entail significant overhaul of our taxation, but I would rather pay taxes for good quality services rather than excessive fees for Australian university education — which is not even world leading despite its price.

Australian tertiary institutions are positioned on the market as service providers, offering degrees and qualifications people need to enter many sectors of the workforce. Just as any big business, universities are trying to cut costs by employing fewer staff, cutting degrees and increasing their profits through encouraging full fee paying international students. A profitable education monopoly, it's hard looking at the figures for the government to justify increasing public funding.

No university has offered to absorb the funding cut either, instead it will be charged directly to their consumer — the students. Within this model, the institutions will probably be able to run on the same profit margin next financial year, and the one after that.


Francine CrimminsFrancine Crimmins is studying a double degree of Journalism and Creative Intelligence & Innovation at the University of Technology Sydney. She is on twitter as @frankiecrimmins. Francine is the recipient of Eureka Street's Margaret Dooley Fellowship for Young Writers.

Topic tags: Francine Crimmins, university fees



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Existing comments

It was maybe 20 years ago that the business culture was imposed on universities. The businessmen brought a lot of cultural baggage with them, and they showed little respect for academic culture. They perhaps improved the customer service aspects of teaching. They removed some inefficiencies. But they came expensive, and their benefit to universities and learning, is less than they'd have us believe. There is a deep conflict between the values of business culture vs. those of Academic culture. When the business professionals started appearing, many of us academics welcomed them. They brought new ideas, and we are always keen to learn, what can be useful. But it was never going to be about us learning. It was change imposed top down. Whose results, are as described in the article.

mike b | 08 May 2017  

Francine, thank you for your perspective. I think back to the days of free university education when many mature-aged people began university studies and I recall the learning as leisurely. That is, there was time to sit around and talk, and meet tutors informally. A group of us would sit on the lawn eating our sandwiches and discussing the most recent lecture we had been to, with great enthusiasm. I wonder if there is any love of learning left in these degree factories that are so expensive.

Janet | 09 May 2017  

Well reported Francine. The education of Australians is of utmost importance in the smooth sailing of the "Good Ship Australia". Your opening example of the disdain that is shown to students who are trying to complete their degrees honestly and with value for money is telling. You also mention how"University management working alongside government to further their own profit" is a factor in tertiary life. Management of banks, prisons and other major institutions and work places seem to operate excessively on the profit model too. Executives are paid obscene salaries( note what vice chancellors are paid) . To increase profits ,staff are cut , remaining staff work longer hours and class sizes are increased. And the profit margins rise. A "fair go " to undergo a tertiary education is fast becoming impossible for many in Australia. Fairness and opportunity and security are supposedly the focus of this government's budget. Let's then have an increase in wages for the lowest paid workers , improved employment and access to tertiary study in the country areas, stop the casualization of the workforce . This may help to ease the burden on uni students.

Celia | 09 May 2017  

Well written and I agree wholeheartedly. This message needs to be taken seriously. I hope all uni students are enrolled to vote, that is one way they can have their voice heard. Write to your MP, your voice needs to be heard loud and clear.

Sharon Snaith | 09 May 2017  

Very well said.

Peter | 09 May 2017  

When university administrators became employers, the faculty their employees, and students their customers, the culture of the university as a place of learning and shared scholarship was doomed. Some of the immediate consequences are already apparent, but it is the long-term effects that are most worrisome. They are hard to measure, and what cannot be measured is of little interest to the technocrats and accountants now in control, but they will wound the very heart of humane culture.

Paul C | 09 May 2017  

Such an important article for the future of all of Australia - so well-written, factual and from the heart. Such excellent comments, too. Not much I can add, except to say how I long for a bunch of mature, experienced academics to get together their own resources and begin to provide higher degrees free from the financial and truth constraints that have - in less than 40 years - chained our universities to sterile servitude and to cruel exploitation.

Dr Marty Rice | 09 May 2017  

I agree that universities owe their students a few answers about fees - why do some Vice-Chancellors get such big salaries and some of them, bonuses also? All for the Swedish system - education should be as much a State concern as health is.

paul finnane | 09 May 2017  

I remember the old days of Commonwealth tertiary scholarships and then the abolition of university fees. In those days there were fewer people at Australian universities and fewer overseas students, who were mostly here under schemes like the Colombo Plan. University administration was not yet bloated out and overseas students had to have very good English skills. University degrees from good Australian, British and American universities are a prized possession in many Asian countries and are also used as a migration aid. The corporatisation, commercialisation and flagrant overseas marketing of Australian university degrees all need to be addressed. We may need to have a trimmer, more efficient - in terms of course delivery to students - and less commercial university sector. That will mean redundancies in the bloated bureaucracy and more emphasis on teaching with genuine career paths, as there once were, for good teachers. My experience in the Arts Faculty at Melbourne in the late '60s and early 70s wasn't that bad - tutorials were once a week, face-to-face and had a maximum of 12 - but library resources were beginning to be stretched and I would say were inadequate. The general atmosphere was very "Lucky Jim". I can see why we have got to where we are. We need to backtrack, reform and move on.

Edward Fido | 09 May 2017  

Superbly expressed and so relevant. Thank you for the timing and efficiency of your outstanding contribution.

Maurice Sheehan | 10 May 2017  

Well written Francine ... FYI: there are tertiary level courses available via Oases in Hawthorn, Melbourne, offered through a different, more co-operative model. The political class just don't get it really ... no wonder "ressentiment" is on the rise globally. for an increasing number of students, the injustice doesn't stop at University ... it manifests in the labour market too.

Mary Tehan | 10 May 2017  

Thank you, Janet (Comment 9 May), Your letter takes me back to 1971 when my wife began her study for a BA in History at UWA. Many happy hours were spent on the lawns in front of the library discussing the last lecture with a group of older students who began their studies later in life because previously it had not been thought necessary for girls to go to university and their husbands certainly would not pay the fees! A year or so later when Gough abolished fees the place was flooded with women who were catching up with their education. Students then were made to think and discuss lectures, get to know tutors and lecturers. There were periods of hectic activity close to exams, but otherwise the process of learning was leisurely. Except for me, that is, because not only did I drive up to Uni after work to have a cuppa down the Union but to pick Jean up, get her home and drive back for an evening lecture in Philosophy for my BA. Those were the days! At 81yrs I now look back with much affection and happy memories of those halcyon days.

John Lewis | 13 May 2017  

I did 6/10 of a CAE Writing course 12 years ago. 'Short story writing' was done online. Most of the hour was taken up with hullos and how are you and the kids as each member logged on, then an ask around of opinions of the weeks set short story. Most tried hard to be inoffensive. to dead or distant writers. So out of sheer boredom I decided to read no set texts and see if anyone noticed from my comments. None did. I passed the subject fine, as I'm sure everyone did.

Jaq Spratt | 28 May 2017  

Industries refer to universities and research for innovation and now they know how to infiltrate the system and corrupt it to suit their needs, whereas, Governments realized it too, that allowing rich immigrants is not as productive as allowing thousands of international students who would invest more than any billionaire would ever, thus, yearly thousands of students move to Australia for study which could potentially defeat any one billionaire in terms of workforce and innovation. Fees are high probably because of a policy of " soak all the rich people with brains , and make them invest big enough into our land so that they would invest the rest of their lives to bring a meaningful conclusion to their life-long efforts". It is not a bad policy, but there's no innovation in it, which makes it appear as some plain business, and it is justified in many cases. For everyone who wishes a higher "education" in life, and getting a piece of paper still matters to them, honestly, learning did not start in a university and does not necessarily end there.

Satish L. | 03 November 2017