Subverting a celebrated Benjamin Franklin bon mot, Noam Chomsky declared that ‘education is ignorance’. It is a pithy phrase that encapsulates a provocatively controversial notion. Chomsky, the ‘radical intellectual’, wasn’t enamoured with his own educational experience, but education, particularly higher education, is seen by governments around the world as essential for creating productive, prosperous countries.
Australia is a case in point. In March last year, the federal minister for education, Julia Gillard, spoke of the need to ‘take stock of our higher education system, to start creating a new understanding about its importance to Australia’s future.’ She added, ‘Unless we resource and respect higher education institutions, we simply won’t maintain our standard of living. Cold hard reality dictates that our goal must be the creation of a globally competitive higher education system for a modern Australia.’
Not that Australia’s university system fares too badly at present. According to the 2008 THE-QS World University Rankings of first degrees, seven of the world’s top 100 universities call Australia home. More significantly, as a country, Australia ranks behind only the US and UK in an analysis of system strength (where ‘system’, ‘access’, ‘flagship’ and ‘economic’ are the criteria) – suggesting it already punches significantly above its per capita weight.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
‘Australia has high-quality universities,’ says Professor Julian Teicher, Director of the Graduate School of Business at Monash University. ‘Although we don’t have a Harvard or a Yale [which rank one and two respectively in the THE-QS ratings], we have a world reputation for having a high-quality education system.’
Nevertheless, as part of its election promise of instigating an ‘election revolution’, the government announced in March this year that caps on student numbers in universities would be scrapped and demand for particular courses would determine how universities will be funded in the future.
The announcement forms part of the government’s response to the Bradley review into higher education, which found that Australia was starting to slip behind other OECD nations in terms of the proportion of the population with degree-level qualifications, with 29 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds holding a degree – a figure Julia Gillard wants to see rise to 40 per cent by 2025.
Increased international exposure benefits all
Julian Teicher also believes Australian students would benefit from increased international exposure: ‘[Education] is becoming more global than it was. Universities have always been global enterprises, but the mobility of students has lagged. I think the world is saying that because businesses are increasingly international, and will remain international, then students need international exposure as early as possible because it puts them on a better footing.’
International exposure is, of course, a reciprocal undertaking, and Teicher thinks Australia is well-placed to gain from it. Already a study destination of choice for foreign students – particularly from China and India – Australia and Australian universities are held in high regard by the international community, a situation Teicher doesn’t expect to change unless there’s ‘less international travel full-stop because of global environmental concerns’.