'Funny you should ask for that'

Higher education as a market
Stuart Macintyre

Patterns of loss

In the early 1970s I went to the United Kingdom to pursue postgraduate studies. My time at Cambridge was happier than that of Manning Clark at Oxford in the 1930s, but there was one source of minor irritation. The local shopkeepers exhibited a combination of servility towards some of their customers and summary contempt for others. Mr Flack, the newsagent, was perhaps the stingiest. At that time one of the London newspapers offered a fifty per cent refund for subscribers, and I had mislaid the previous month's receipt. Mr Flack was prepared to issue me with a new one but it would cost me twopence for his time and his stationery.

If the English achieved renown as a nation of shopkeepers, they had slipped some way by the era of the Three-Day Week. My wife sought a new seal for the pressure cooker with which we made New Zealand neck chops palatable, but no shop seemed to have one in stock. 'Funny you should ask for that', one man told her, 'for we get a lot of requests for pressure cooker parts, but we don't stock them - you see, there's no demand'.

As with English shopkeepers and rubber rings, so with Australian universities and various fields of study: those who want to study a language, classics, philosophy, even history and literature, mathematics, physics and chemistry are told they are no longer taught because there is no demand for them. As the number of students in higher education increases, the proportion engaged in these core disciplines of the sciences, social sciences and humanities decreases.

Enrolments in the core sciences are falling both relatively and absolutely. While the number of Bachelor of Science students increased from 40,254 in 1989 to 67,327 in 2000, the number studying mathematics, physics and chemistry all fell. There were 7956 equivalent full-time students of mathematics in 1989, 6900 in 2000; 4717 equivalent full-time students of chemistry in 1989, 4137 in 2000; 2893 in physics in 1989, and 2008 in 2000. The areas of greatest enrolment and fastest growth are in computer science and the biological sciences.1 These disciplines attract students because of their clear vocational utility, and they attract research funding because of their industrial utility. Presented with such opportunities, universities are reconfiguring their science faculties, rebadging their degrees and shifting their research effort.

The implications have been explored in a recent survey of the mathematical sciences in Australia. Between 1995 and 1999 it is estimated that there was a 26 per cent decline in the number of mathematicians working in Australian universities. Some of our ablest mathematicians are leaving Australia to pursue their careers, and some of our ablest undergraduates are choosing other fields of study: ten years ago there were 250 honours graduates in mathematics; now there are 150. With falling numbers of mathematics graduates going into the schools, the number of Year 12 students who take advanced mathematics also falls.2

A similar pattern is apparent in the country's Arts faculties. In 1998 there were 3779 equivalent full-time students of philosophy in Australian universities. Last year there were 3628.3 They are enrolled in sixteen universities, for philosophy is taught in only one of the newer universities that were established in the 1980s. That university is Charles Sturt, which has by far the largest enrolment, 560 equivalent full-time students, most of them police trainees who study applied ethics. The arrangement illustrates the impact of vocational training on even the most recondite of disciplines. It has benefits for both the police and philosophy, but the employment of ethicists does little for other branches of philosophy. Charles Sturt University also supports the largest philosophy department, with 14 academics. In 1998 there were 145 philosophers teaching the 3779 students. By 2000 they were reduced to 131. Excessive class sizes had increased, while the range of subjects taught had diminished.

For the discipline of history it is possible to relate a more detailed account, as thirty years ago Geoffrey Serle conducted a comprehensive and prescient survey of the profession. He found there were 320 historians with tenure in the country's sixteen university history departments in 1971, with perhaps another 100 in temporary positions, 75 in neighbouring university departments and 200 or more in the other tertiary institutions. This yielded a maximum estimate of 750 academic historians.4 By 1989, following the transformation of the colleges and institutes into universities, a gathering of heads of departments reported 450 staff members. A survey in 1994 calculated that number had fallen to 410 and another in 1996 reported to a little more than 300. The most recent, in 2000, found 300 historians in the thirty institutions that responded, and a further nine non-respondent might have taken the number close to 350.5

The calculations are necessarily approximate, for few of the post-Dawkins universities maintain history departments, and the historians they employ to teach in a variety of courses are not easily picked up by the profession's voluntary census. Some of the sub-disciplines that Serle recognised, such as educational history and economic history, are no longer taught, and those who used to teach them are redeployed in a fashion that makes it hard to identify the survivors even in the pre-Dawkins universities. Most of these older, more traditional universities have also reorganised their history departments into larger, multi-disciplinary schools, usually after an earlier loss of staff by the free-standing department. At the University of Sydney, a history department with 41 positions in 1988 shrank to 26 by 1996, and it now has 23 staff in the School of Philosophy, Gender, History and the Ancient World. At Macquarie a department of modern history fell from 28 to 14 between 1988 and 1996, and now has 8 positions in the Division of Humanities. Monash and La Trobe, which in the late 1980s supported large departments, are now down to 16 and 19 positions respectively.

Sometimes the loss of staff has been managed by abandoning geographical areas or periods of history. Sometimes it has resulted from voluntary resignations or posts left vacant after resignation, so that it is no longer possible to study medieval history at this university or modern German history at that one. Once the specialist scholar goes, postgraduate supervision ceases, serial subscriptions are discontinued, monograph collection lapses. Before long, the scholarly resources so carefully built up are reduced to a derelict wasteland. These former departments continue to offer a sequence of history subjects; they offer a fourth-year honours program of advanced seminars, and they enroll postgraduates. But the range of subject choice is narrowed, the fourth-year honours program is constrained, postgraduate research constricted and the capacity to train specialists in important fields is lost.

My final example is the teaching of languages other than English. In 1999 a working party headed by Anthony Low undertook a study that was particularly concerned with collaborative schemes for teaching languages. The report appeared with the euphemistic title, "Subjects of Small Enrolment in the Humanities", and made valuable suggestions for how such collaborative schemes could best operate so that an undergraduate in one university could undertake study in a language offered by another. Its survey of the maintenance of language teaching in Australian universities reveals an alarming attrition of face-to-face language teaching. Just one university in 1999 taught Hindi, and just two Vietnamese. There were significant shortcomings in the availability of Russian, Korean and Arabic; the Classics were judged to be vulnerable. Even more alarming was the rapid abandonment of many community languages; between 1997 and 1999 thirteen of them were lost to Australian universities.6

As with history, so with languages. The bare statistics say little about the narrowing of the curriculum, the dispersal of library collections, the diminution of research capacity, the disappearance of cognate teaching in literature and history, and the organisational restructuring that all too often reduces a department to a service program. Such contraction of provision soon validates the argument that there is insufficient demand to sustain a language. Acquisition of a language other than English is a substantial undertaking. The learning of grammar, the memorisation of vocabulary and mastery of pronunciation demands a sustained commitment that is likely to falter unless the student is engaged by the culture in which it is embedded. A lively department in which there is an honours program and postgraduate activity is able to sustain enthusiasm. The drop-out rates from language programs taught as a service activity confirm the claim that there is insufficient demand to maintain them.

This inventory could be extended to other disciplines. During 1996 and 1997 the Academies of the Humanities and Social Sciences undertook a major strategic review of the disciplines they cover. Their very substantial reports make a strong case that scholars in these fields contribute significantly to research and research training, which were the principal activities they examined. They also observe that Australia is falling behind in its support of research, a concern echoed in the Chief Scientist's subsequent report, The Chance to Change. The report of the Academy of the Humanities places particular emphasis on the decline in working conditions, the strains on infrastructure, the increased student-staff ratios and reduced entry-level opportunities for younger academics.8 The Arts Faculty at my own university is exceptional in its maintenance of fields of study and its increase in staff.

The intervenings of markets (& their surrogates)

The emphasis in these various disciplinary surveys is on resources, both human and other, because it is on staff numbers and the circumstances of academic life that those who are concerned with the state of their disciplines dwell. They are concerned with the contraction of the profession, the paucity of research funding and the inadequacy of libraries and laboratories as a constraint on the capacity to fulfil their vocation. But what if no-one wants to learn from them? There is an apocryphal story told of a professor an ancient Semitic language who held an endowed chair at Oxford and, in the absence of students, pottered about his college until, after many years, a student sought tuition - to find that the teacher had forgotten his discipline.

Those who perceive higher education as a market are unlikely to be impressed by mere inventories of resources. They want to see evidence of demand. If there are falling numbers of academic staff to teach a particular course, this might indicate that not enough students want to learn it. If research is declining, then presumably it does not yield useful knowledge.

It is not that the defenders of the disciplines are bereft of arguments for their practical utility. The notion of scientific discovery as an end in itself, so powerful in the research ethos that created the modern university, is seldom encountered now in its pure form. We are more likely to hear of research as an activity linked to innovation, and of the unexpected uses that proceed from the most arcane discovery in a field of pure research. The custodians of the humanities insist, and justifiably, that they too have a vital role in the knowledge economy. The difficulty is that these claims seldom correlate with the patterns of research support. Nor is it apparent that the funding of research from public and private sources provides an adequate measure of demand. Industry funding of research is influenced by the different strategies of companies in different sectors, which in turn are affected differently by the government's unstable taxation provisions for research expenditure.

The problems of applying a demand and supply model to university teaching, as the evangelists of the enterprise university urge, are considerably greater. Students choose courses on the basis of imperfect information, differential pricing and locational availability. Some options are constrained (there is a finite number of medical faculties, and the places within them depend upon teaching hospitals), while others (such as business studies) allow ready expansion. Market signals suffer from long delays (a degree course takes a minimum of three years) and do not correlate with national need: hence the decline of graduates in mathematics.

The principal measure of demand for higher education is the entry score needed by school-leavers to obtain a place in their preferred course and institution. The entry score is expressed in most States as the position in a rank order of all those who were assessed at the end of Year 12, so that an entry score of 95 indicates that the top five per cent qualify for entry in that course. Entry scores are affected by the number of places (a course with 1000 places and a score of 95 might have more entrants with a score of 99 than a course with an entry score of 99 and just 100 places) and are subject to manipulation, yet they reveal a clear pattern of strong demand for medicine and law, where entry scores in the high 90s are common among leading universities. The highest entry score in Arts is for my own Faculty at the University of Melbourne, where a score of around 90 is usually required; the Monash score is in the mid-80s, and the Universities of Western Australia and Queensland require a score of about 80, with other large faculties falling lower, and some going down to the 60s. Scores for Science, where prerequisites reduce the size of the pool, are no higher, and often worryingly low.

Investigation of the reasons for these preferences reveals a plethora of factors.9 The reputation and ambience of the institution weighs heavily. A student from a rural high school is more likely to be attracted to a regional university, one from a metropolitan private school to a sandstone. Class and gender patterns operate. Parents, former classmates and careers advisors play an influential role. There is substantial evidence, also, that undergraduates change directions after they begin their courses. Yet the weight of vocational considerations is indisputable. The high demand for law and medicine attest to the prestige of these professions, and other courses that provide professional accreditation and strong job prospects are increasingly popular. Employment rates and salary scales have become a principal index of educational success. Business studies is now the largest as well as the fastest growing field of study.

In an educational market such shifts in demand produce changes in supply. Universities are provided with a fixed number of places for HECS students, by the Commonwealth Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs (DETYA). They are restricted in their allocation among their faculties of this student load by DETYA's requirements, as well as their own configuration of buildings, equipment and staff. Within these restrictions, they respond to the demand signals by reallocating load from courses with low demand to those with high demand. A faculty with a low entry score is liable to lose some of its student places, and with them some of its funding.

Faced with these pressures, some faculties of Arts and Science have created their own specialised courses with stronger vocational orientation. In Arts it has become common to offer a degree in Media and Communications; Computer Science performs a similar function in Science. These courses typically attract large numbers of applicants, though it is not clear that they improve the host faculty's entry score: if the specialised course draws applicants who would otherwise enroll in the Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science, then the demand for the general course is depleted. Some universities have in effect cannibalised their generic degrees with what are usually termed 'tagged degrees', and it is in them that the move to applied studies is most apparent.

Yet these organisational changes provide an imperfect picture of what is actually taught in such courses, and the scholarship and research that sustains them. Mathematicians and philosophers are remarkably adaptable scholars, capable of taking on a service role while practising and maintaining their disciplines. There is little evidence in the statistics I cited earlier of a decline in demand for either discipline. The fall in enrolments in mathematics was greatly exceeded by the fall in the number of mathematicians. The 4 per cent reduction in philosophy EFTSU over three years was accompanied by a reduction of 10 per cent in staff. The classes that are offered are larger than ever. It is supply rather than demand that is languishing.

The contraction of provision began some time ago when the Commonwealth expansion of the number of university places outstripped its funding of the universities. The universities accordingly turned to the recruitment of international students into vocational courses, while the introduction of a Higher Education Contribution increased vocational considerations among domestic students. The process gathered pace in 1996 when the then Commonwealth minister, Senator Vanstone, reduced funding and ended supplementation for salary increases, while offering the universities greater freedom to enrol fee-paying domestic students. Most of the vice-chancellors who embraced this Faustian compact promoted courses with obvious vocational outcomes. Arts and Science have suffered accordingly. Many of the students who enroll in these faculties discover too late that it does do not offer a full course in the discipline that captures their interest. We have already closed off the opportunity to test demand on many of campuses for some of the core disciplines, for even if you want to study them they are not offered. Our universities appear to provide another instance of the failure to stock pressure-cooker parts.

Changes in the support of research at our universities reveal a similar shift towards an imperfect market. Just fifty years ago, as research became an integral part of the activity of Australian universities, government was persuaded of the public benefits of a national research capacity. Commonwealth funding provided for research facilities, research libraries, postgraduate research scholarships and research grants. Learned academies were formed, university presses and academic journals established. Study leave and provisions for international travel helped join Australian scholars to the forefront of international scholarship.

Gold might not tarnish but some golden ages do. While some took advantage of the increased opportunities for research, others did not. The opportunities were provided to researchers in the universities, which remained limited in size and coverage, but denied to those on the other side of the binary divide. The architects of this system, particularly Sir Leslie Martin, the physicist whose inquiry in the early 1960s created its blueprint, were insistent on the distinction between pure and applied research.10 The links with industry remained weak.

This system came under increasing strain from the mid-1970s as the economy faltered and public provision was curtailed, while demand for higher education increased. When John Dawkins reformed the sector in the mid-1980s, he put a greater emphasis on accountability. Some of the funding that had been provided to the universities to support their research activity was sequestered into a national pool, and reallocated to individual researchers and research groups. Instead of making an eleemosynary provision for all, the minister preferred to provide more substantial funding to those who were best able to use it. While peer assessment guided this concentration of research support, the distribution of funds was overlaid by centrally determined priorities and encouragement of industry partnerships. Through these and other devices the Australian Research Council tried to reconcile academic and market values.

These changes strained the disciplines, but they have since been overtaken by the extension of the same principles to the core funding of universities. Several years ago the Commonwealth changed its formula for the operating grants of universities. The research component is now determined by measures of performance based primarily on inputs, so that those institutions that attract substantial research income are rewarded. There is a minor and very approximate output factor, publications, which uses definitions and weighting that disadvantage the humanities. Postgraduate research places are allocated according to similar measures with stringent requirements for timely completion. Furthermore, a weighting applies that is meant to allow for the differences in cost of research in different disciplines: the laboratory disciplines receive 2.35 times the funding of the non-laboratory disciplines. Meanwhile the Prime Minister's Science, Engineering and Innovation Council has convened a meeting of the key national funding bodies to advance the process of identifying research priorities.

As universities seek to maximise their share of the available funds, they apply similar formulae to their own funding models. Research support and postgraduate places go to those faculties, departments, centres and teams that best conform to the Commonwealth's model. The universities are indeed required to formulate research plans that show how they will promote such concentrations of research activity. The growing differentiation of research opportunities has been formalised in the new concept of the 'research active staff' (defined on the basis of publication, postgraduate supervision and research grants). There is a very real danger of recreating the binary divide within the unified system of higher education.

The new regimen has wrought considerable change on the ways that universities manage their affairs and on the way that academics conduct their teaching and research.11 There is both an institutional and individual preoccupation with measurement of performance. The aggregate of research funding has become a measure of the research performance of a university; its newsletter and glossy promotional literature will feature the research project that attracts the largest grant as the paradigm of excellence. Academics, who are usually so resistant to external direction of their activity, show a surprising responsiveness to these market signals. A lawyer will write a journal article rather than a case note because the former is included in the publication index and the latter is not. It becomes more difficult to find a book reviewer or a journal editor, because those activities, so necessary to the scholarly infrastructure, are not recognised as research activities for funding purposes.

The core disciplines of the sciences, social sciences and humanities are especially disadvantaged by the emphasis on research income as a determinant of funding. They find it harder to attract industry funding, which is concentrated in the biological and technological sciences. Some of the disciplines are especially disadvantaged by the new conditions on postgraduate research: in linguistics or anthropology, where substantial fieldwork is required, a candidate will have great difficulty in completing his or her thesis in the time that is required for funding purposes. More generally, the application of simple aggregate measures across the range of research fields pays little heed to issues of quality. The British system where discipline panels evaluate research performance on a qualitative basis is far more conducive to breadth and excellence.

Getting beyond one-size-fits-all

A friend of mine who works as a mathematician in a leading American university and also in a medical research institute in Melbourne recently attended an Australian conference in molecular biology. He was astonished that so many Australian researchers have chosen to conduct their work in applied areas downstream from the basic research on the genome, in the belief that the competition will be less keen. Without first-rate pure research, our applied research will be parasitic and insecure. So too in the humanities and social sciences, the quality of our work in applied ethics or language testing will depend upon strong departments of philosophy and linguistics. Without them we are dependent upon the paradigms of others.

The Australian universities dealt themselves into these fields during the post-war decades, and Australian scholars established international reputations for the quality of their contributions across a range of disciplines. As we have moved to a more competitive model of higher education and research, we need to ensure that we sustain that standing. We need to attract able students to studies in Arts and Science, and to provide them with a comprehensive education that affords both breadth and depth. We need to maintain the capacity for research in the foundational disciplines on which the applied fields are based. We need to use the efficiencies of the market to strengthen our universities and help them serve the intellectual activities that are their proper concern.

Too many homilies of this kind end on such a note of exhortation. Let me here be more practical and suggest some specific steps. Faculties of Arts and Science need to engage closely with their sources of recruitment and their end users. We need to work with schools to explain that there are good reasons to pursue a liberal education in the post-compulsory years of schooling and at university. We need to work with employers to help them recruit our graduates. And we need to impress on those who control our universities that the present volatile mix of public and private provision is self-defeating, even in its own utilitarian terms. The present funding arrangements apply a one-size-fits-all formula to disciplines with quite different needs and capacities. It is not beyond the national wit to devise strategies that can allow the university to operate as an enterprise while sustaining the academic activities that constitute it.

Stuart Macintyre is Ernest Scott Professor of History at the University of Melbourne and a former member of the Evatt Foundation's Executive Committtee. This paper was originally presented at a conference organised by the Australia Institute and Manning Clark House on "The Idea of a University: Enterprise or Academy?" convened at the Australian National University on 26 July 2001.


1. Higher Education Supplement, The Australian, 11 July 2001, p. 40.

2. Jan Thomas, Mathematical Sciences in Australia: Looking for a Future, Canberra: Federation of Australian Science and Technology Societies, 2000.

3. These figures are calculated from returns provided to the Australasian Association of Philosophy in July 2001 and I am grateful to Graham Priest for allowing me access to them.

4. Geoffrey Serle, "The state of the profession in Australia", Historical Studies, vol. 15, no. 61 (October 1973), pp. 686-702.

5. Brian Crozier, "The History Community", Australian Historical Association Bulletin, nos. 59-60 (August-November 1989), pp. 53-4; Norman Etherington and Tom Stannage, So You Want to Study ... History, Canberra: Higher Education Division, DTYA, 1995; Stuart Macintyre, "Discipine Review: History", Australian Historical Association Bulletin, no. 83 (December 1996), pp. 1-13; Jill Roe, "Faith, Hope and History in the Year 2000", Australian Historical Association Bulletin, no. 91 (December 2000), pp. 33-46.

6. Subjects of Small Enrolment in the Humanities: Enhancing their Future, Canberra: Australian Academy of the Hummanities, 2000.

7. R. Batterham, The Chance to Change: Final Report by the Chief Scientist, Canberra: Department of Industry, Science and Resources, 2000.

8. Reference Group of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, Australian Research Council, 1998b. Knowing Ourselves and Others: The Humanities in Australia into the 21st Century, Canberra: Australian Research Council, 1998, esp. vol. 1, pp. 1-97; Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, Challenges for the Social Sciences and Australia, Canberra: Australian Research Council, 1998, esp. vol. 1, pp. 3-50.

9. Richard James, Gabrielle Baldwin and Craig McInnes, Which University? The Factors Influencing the Choices of Prospective Undergraduates, Canberra: DETYA, 1999.

10. Susan Davies, The Martin Committee and the Binary Policy of Higher Education in Australia, Melbourne: Ashwood House, 1989.

11. Simon Marginson and Mark Considine, The Enterprise University: Power, Government and Reinvention in Australia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

See also:


Suggested citation
Macintyre, Stuart, ''Funny you should ask for that'', Evatt Journal, Vol. 2, No. 3, April 2002.<http://evatt.org.au/papers/funny-you-should-ask.html>