Existential panic at the ivory tower

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5 January 2024
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This article was originally published in Australian Financial Review on 4 January 2024 and was written by the author in their capacity as a contributor for that publication. 

It has been republished on the IPA website with permission. The views expressed are those of the author alone.


The Claudine Gay fiasco at Harvard has triggered a US debate about the purpose of higher education that Australia seems determined not to have.


“Universities are to Republicans what guns are to Democrats” is a neat summary from Princeton University professor Greg Conti of the political battle lines in the United States’ erupting campus culture war. The resignation this week of Harvard University president Claudine Gay is the latest event in a chain reaction that began last month in Washington.

When the presidents of three of the world’s most prestigious universities were unable to tell a House of Representatives committee hearing whether calling for the genocide of Jews would violate their institutions’ code of conduct, all the long-harboured suspicions of American conservatives about the US higher education system were confirmed.

Claudine Gay resigned as Harvard University president after the controversy. AP

Two of the three presidents, Gay at Harvard and the head of the University of Pennsylvania, Liz Magill, have quit since their now-infamous testimony.

The controversy engulfing higher education in the US is about a lot more than antisemitism at Ivy League colleges, the withering of intellectual diversity on campus and the imposition of ideological conformity on students. The discussion has morphed into a much bigger debate about the purpose of universities.

It’s a conversation that has been a long time coming in the US, where students typically owe $US37,000 ($55,000) on education loans and where half of former students are still paying college debts 20 years after they enrolled.

An increasing number of public and private sector employers are beginning to realise what’s long been obvious: a university qualification might prove that potential employees can read and write, but it’s no guarantee they can do the job.

The state of Maryland removed the requirement of a degree from thousands of roles as part of a growing movement to tackle “degree inflation” when employers add four-year college degree requirements to jobs that historically haven’t had such requirements.

A Maryland government official summed up what many employers know is true: “I think many HR people will tell you that the non-degree candidates are hungrier, that they have something to prove, and they are willing to go above and beyond.”

Whitlam’s mantra

In the US, they’re starting to ask hard questions about the future of university education – questions that in Australia we seem keen to ignore.

Jason Clare has shown himself to be one of the Albanese government’s more able and thoughtful ministers. But like numerous Labor and Liberal education ministers before him, he is committed to the now 50-year-old mantra of Gough Whitlam: the more students at university, the better the country will be. (To which can be added another mantra from the past few years: Australian universities should enrol as many foreign students as is possible to cram in. A full 44 per cent of students at the University of Sydney are now from overseas.)

Australia’s rate of productivity growth (or lack thereof) bears no relationship to the growth of university admissions.

According to the interim report of the Albanese government’s Universities Accord, 90 per cent of jobs created over the next five years will require a post-secondary school qualification, and 50 per cent a higher qualification. Which is exactly the sort of assumption-begging, created-for-a-purpose factoid to be expected from a review of this kind.

No committee considering the future of higher education would ever contemplate a smaller university sector with less money and fewer students. And no such committee would question whether 50 per cent of future jobs should even require a degree.

It’s interesting that traditionally, Labor politicians have cared most about the status a university education bestows, while Coalition MPs are more likely to champion vocational training and the trades.

Labor’s measure of equity in education is misplaced. Equity isn’t measured by how many young people go to university; it’s measured by how many young people are in rewarding and fulfilling employment, regardless of when they finished their education.

The popular rags-to-riches refrain of the past few decades that “I was the first member of my family to go to university” is becoming a little tired. There’s nothing special or noble in being the first member of your family to spend three years of your life learning how to deconstruct Western civilisation.

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This article was original published in The Australian Financial Review and was written by the author in their capacity as a contributor for that publication. It has been republished on the IPA website with permission. The views expressed are those of the author alone.

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