Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A robust critique of Australian universities

In the conservative Australian magazine Quadrant there is a provocative piece Why Australian universities are just not good enough, by James Allan, a Professor in the law school at University of Queensland. It pains me to admit that some of his criticisms and concerns are largely accurate. Allan is to be affirmed for bringing some of these issues to public debate. Whether, some of provocative language will help is debatable.

Some of the problems I have highlighted previously on this blog. But he also makes a good case that some of the problems are particularly worse in Australia than other countries. The problems [many of which are inter-related] include:
One of several concrete proposals for improvements is greater public accountability and transparency such as publishing 
  • the salaries and job descriptions of the most highly paid university employees
  • the ratios of administrative staff to lecturers
I would add, stop acting like students are customers and fail more students. Other proposals, such as taking away ARC funding for the humanities and social sciences and giving it to medical research or directly to the universities are debatable. It may just fuel political attacks such as this one.


  1. As a postdoc, I loved Australia because the salaries were so high. I made more faster and had more fun than any of my contemporaries who had university post-docs in the USA. There, post-docs are often poorer, in real terms, than graduate students.
    Now that I am also a citizen, I think that this is a problem. Salaries equal to, or greater than, US$200K is pretty high for professors, and salaries of just under US$100K are high for post-docs. I am quoting in USD because it is a better measure of how an scientist from abroad would see it. The strength of the AUD, which ranged from ~0.75USD to ~1.2USD during my stay so far, has compounded the problem, but it was already obvious in 2004 when AUD ~0.75USD.

    I disagree with where you are going at the end of this piece. I think that the strength of the US system w.r.t. research is well-recognised and the US system is private! So, students ARE customers in a more real sense than here. Yet, no one doubts the strength of the US system for science education (though tuition blowouts are a problem if student lending is loose). One of the strengths of the US system is the opportunity offered by having many Universities. The reason that there are so many is that the Universities are private.

    The problem here is that the Universities are public. Even worse, they are public and unionised. The students are treated like taxpayers and voters, not customers!

    I think that Australia could improve its position by making it easier to open more private Universities, and to allow competition into the industry.

    Many of the great US Universities were founded by wealthy private entrepreneurs (Stanford? Carnegie-Mellon?).

    Where, I ask, is Rhinehart University???? My thought is that it is might not be worth it, because the overheads here are so high, and it wouldn't be founded in the first place.

  2. Hi Seth,

    Thanks for the comment.

    Alan Bond [a boom and bust entrepreneur] founded Bond University in the late 70s.

    I don't think salaries [postdoc or professorial] are a major issue. Outsiders should note that the numbers you give are not the actual salary but include 28 per cent "on costs" [superannuation, long service leave, …]. The current professorial salary is about US140K and a postdoc is about US70K. One thing that is debatable though is that the salary is the same [within a few per cent] for a Professor of Computer Science at University of Sydney and for a sociology professor at the University of Southern Queensland [almost like a US community college and with a very low cost of living].

    Mostly where this piece is headed at the end is toward reforms proposed by a UQ economist, Paul Fritjers


    He focuses on why it is important to cut and cap senior administrative salaries.