Australia’s higher education sector is under heavy scrutiny. Still recovering from the impact of COVID and criticised for its treatment of staff, it faces strong pressures to step up its performance.
The government launched a broad review of the sector in late 2022 to inform a Universities Accord. The interim report was released in July, with the full report coming in December. Professor Brian Schmidt, is one of Australia’s most eminent academics, an astrophysicist who shared a Nobel Prize in 2011. Schmidt has been Vice-Chancellor at the Australian National University since 2016, a role he leaves at the end of the year.
The Universities Accord interim report suggests 55% of jobs by 2050 will require a higher education qualification. At the moment, the share sits at 36%. To reach that target, Schmidt says institutions, secondary educators and governments will need to work together:
The single most important thing, is our students when they finish high school have to be university ready. Universities are trying to fix the problems and shortcomings of our [Kindergarten to Year 12] system or even pre-K-12 system. We are the last line of defence.
Once students have graduated and they are university ready, then certainly here at ANU, we find that the access to university is not level. Why? Because studying full time at university is full time. And the notion that they’re going to go work a full-time job and study full-time seems possible and is done by many of the students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, but it puts them at a huge disadvantage. It’s just really difficult to do that.
So we really need to focus on adequate support for students, especially in that first year or two when they come to university so that they can study alongside everyone else on equal basis.
Schmidt believes universities are facing their “Uber moment” - where big tech companies like LinkedIn, Meta, and Microsoft “take out the middle man” (higher education) and team up with leading institutions like Harvard or Oxford to offer a streamlined, recognised course at a fraction of the cost.
I guess the question is, do I want to be at the ANU competing with that? The answer is no, because I’m going to lose. Their cost structures are cheaper than mine, but what they’re offering is not what I’m trying to offer. I’m trying to provide people the ability to do more than just the homogenised offering and get to talk to the people who write the textbooks [and] get to live on campus with a bunch of people not just doing the IT degree you are doing.
With not enough academic jobs available to employ the PhD graduates who want them, are we turning out too many?
This will be controversial. But the answer I think right now, given the state of the economy, probably yes.
It’s not just academic jobs, we don’t expect all of our PhDs to go get academic jobs. It’s never been that way and it shouldn’t be that way. What we do expect is those PhD students to go get jobs where their skills of research and knowledge add a lot of value to their job. And that’s the part where the Australian economy isn’t very developed.
The accord’s interim report also highlights the rate of sexual harassment and assault experienced by students on campuses. A parliamentary inquiry has recommended an independent taskforce to oversee universities’ performance in dealing with this problem. Schmidt agrees the situation is unnacceptable, but believes institutions should have the final say in how and what action is taken.
Sexual violence is, I am sad to say, rife across Australia […] I truly believe that universities have stood up in a way that no other part of society ever has. We have not ducked. We have actually stood up. But of course, when you stand up and take ownership, the ugly state of reality comes to light.
The proposed committee to oversight at some level I think is not a bad idea. I want to have an expert committee to respond to and to demonstrate the work I am doing. I want to be held accountable, but I want to be held accountable by people who understand the area and can make sensible judgements of what I am doing - being adequate, outstanding or inadequate.
I want to be held accountable by a body, but I do not want that body disembodied from my own governance to command me what to do - because I am confident I am going to do a better job than it can. And so that is an important bit. I want to demonstrate to it that I am doing an outstanding job. I do not want to be dictated what to do because that will be a lowest common denominator.