Our universities have to start making some hard decisions and that includes teaching what is important, but not necessarily popular.

Our universities have to start making some hard decisions and that includes teaching what is important, but not necessarily popular.

LAST week our local member put a flyer through the letterbox. It contained a dot-point list of recent funding initiatives with, as you'd expect, a focus on those that will benefit our area. It was an impressive list: lots of dots and a million-dollar figure at the bottom.

The list will no doubt be useful in an election campaign or during parliamentary question time politicians love to be able to list all the things they have done. But it didn't have the intended effect on this voter. Rather it served to emphasise the negative: somehow, despite Candide-like political announcements, we still have scandalously long waiting lists in our hospitals. Our schools lag behind schools in Finland and Asia. Housing programs for indigenous communities have funded more administrators than houses. Our universities do badly in international rankings, and the few rankings in which they score well we find hard to believe (the people who work in our universities don't believe them). Time for some serious rethinking and some straight talking?

I heard some exemplary straight talking when the (excellent) Gonski review of school funding was released. My koala stamp went to the man (I won't name him) who admitted on radio that some people like the inequities in funding that the review revealed. They want their children to get a better education than their potential competitors for jobs or places in prestigious universities. Salutary honesty.

So what would salutary honesty and straight talking look like in the case of our universities? Why are we not more internationally competitive?

Start with salaries, often cited as the stumbling block to international competitiveness. Despite what the union says (and some politicians seem to believe), academic salaries in Australia are high by world standards. This has been noticeably true since the recent rise in our dollar against the US dollar and pound sterling, but in fact it has been true for some time. If you are dubious, check university salaries on the web they are in the public domain (though the loadings many staff are able to negotiate are not). And as you check, remember that with academic salaries come job security and enviable superannuation benefits. So the relatively low international standing of our universities can't be slated home to uncompetitive salary levels.

The problem lies more with the extent to which our universities respond to incentives but the wrong incentives.

Our universities should be focused on what to teach and what to research. I've written in these pages about the drivers often the wrong ones of Australia's time-wasting and complex research funding regimes. But teaching is the primary function of our universities, and the bald truth is that teaching receives scant attention. And there is not enough discussion of what university departments and faculties ought to teach. Instead, the focus has shifted to what will prove popular, what will guarantee the highest enrolments.

Our universities have by and large given up on principled decision-making about what should be taught, and on designing and requiring coherent and sequential structures of learning. It is easier to give department A more money than department B on the basis of enrolments than it is to have a nasty fight about what's worth teaching and how. Some professional faculties have resisted these pressures they are commendably focused on what students need to know to forge successful careers in engineering or medicine or law. But many other faculties have not. Hence the rash of newspaper articles about the cancellation of this or that once-thought-important subject.

What our universities should be doing is deciding what they ought to teach and what they ought to require their students to learn. We shouldn't be seeing media publicity about courses Australian studies, Australian literature being dropped because of lack of numbers. If courses are important, degree structures should ensure they attract enough students if they aren't important, they should not be offered in the first place.

This won't be easy and the government hasn't helped. The easiest way to ensure additional funding under the new arrangements (post the Bradley Review) is to attract more students, and, accordingly, a number of universities have lifted their enrolments substantially this year.

But whatever the rhetoric from both universities and government, everyone knows that this cannot be done without lowering standards popularity over quality.

It's an odd abdication of professional responsibility. Do universities really want us to believe that students are better equipped than faculty at deciding what should be taught and in what sequence? I can remember being 18. I can also remember how little I knew upon enrolment, and how much I learnt from well-planned courses that were not on the top of my teenage list.

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