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.
‘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’.
Australian universities are proactively forging relations with their counterparts overseas – for example, the joint-venture research academy between Monash and the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay (IITB) – and are also involved in setting up ‘global classrooms’ through advancements in Internet technology. Teicher, however, doesn’t believe cross-border electronic study will ever be ‘The Way’ things are done.
‘The whole importance of travel is that you can meet with people and gain a level of understanding that we don’t yet have the capacity to achieve through high-speed, high-definition Internet connection,’ he argues.
Higher education has been identified as crucial to Australia’s future development, and while the full extent of financial support from the federal government has been adversely affected by the global financial crisis (with the promised $7 billion revamp now likely to be staggered over several years), its universities are doing their best to ensure that, in terms of national prosperity, if education really is ignorance, then ignorance should turn into bliss.
AUSTRALIAN UNIVERSITIES IN THE-QS TOP 100
Australian National University (16) University of Sydney (37) University of Melbourne (38) University of Queensland (43) University of New South Wales (45) Monash University (47) University of Western Australia (83)
Australia‘s Deakin University helps rebuild Aceh’s education system
A new initiative from Deakin University shows that international cooperation between universities is about more than student exchanges and joint research ventures. Exemplifying the notion of corporate social responsibility, Deakin will train a number of teachers from Aceh to help rebuild the Indonesian province’s education system and infrastructure shattered by the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004.
Aceh was the region hardest hit by the tsunami, and among the 128,000 dead were 500 university lecturers and 2876 teachers. As part of a social rebuilding programme, 20 Achenese students will come to Deakin University to study for a Master of Education degree in Trimester 2, 2009, under a scholarship programme to encourage the training of a new generation of teachers.
Under the programme, 20 Aceh graduates aged 23 to 30 will undertake
the Regional Centre for Education in Science and Mathematics (RECSAM)
Diploma in Malaysia, with English as the language of instruction. Assuming they achieve an International English Language Testing System (IELTS) score of at least 6.5, the 20 best-performing students will then proceed to Deakin for the Master of Education course.
Nor is this a one-off incident, as the programme is expected to be repeated with Aceh government support for the next four years.
According to Professor Sally Walker, Deakin University’s Vice-Chancellor, ‘the impact of the 2004 tsunami on the Aceh province, and its teaching community, was devastating. Deakin University will train a new generation of teachers. Deakin is. proud to be associated with this significant step for the province. The province has rightly recognised that high-quality education is the key to its rebuilding and to its future development.’