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I am sure that I am not the only person in Australia who is concerned about what seems to be a continuing debate concerning our higher education system, a debate which I feel is based on all the wrong, and inaccurate, assumptions.

I believe very strongly that the first priority in any country should be its education system, from Kindergarten to Ph. D. students. I believe that this should top all other demands on a country’s resources, followed closely by health, although the two are intertwined. The current debate centres on higher education, who can access it and how much it is going to cost them as individuals. The politicians seem to feel that there is no problem with expecting graduate students to enter the workforce with a huge debt if Universities, and the fees they can charge, are deregulated. It doesn’t seem to enter the heads of politicians that deterring bright and competent students from embarking on a degree because they feel they can do better in life without that huge debt is a problem in terms of  a lost resource. They confidently say that they will back students from a low sociological background by providing scholarships for them but we have not been given any details of this. The government should have details about how many students which fit this descriptor are currently in the system and how much it would cost to provide them all with scholarships. This is a very necessary part of the argument and it is interesting that this doesn’t seem to have been costed or such a detail publicised.

The other side of the issue, the motives of the Universities, is also a murky area. They seem to feel that deregulation would attract better staff and better research but again this argument does not appear to be substantiated. We would need to know what does attract good quality staff. It is hard to believe that they are entirely motivated by money. I would have thought that the research environment, quality colleagues and quality management would also appear in the equation. I need convincing that top research staff are only attracted and motivated by money. I wonder if quality Vice-Chancellors attract their own staff followers who primarily require a positive environment in which to pursue their goals .

With 5 degrees under my belt, both from overseas and Australia, my impression is that standards are deteriorating  because Universities, at least in Australia, are failing to attract top staff because of an amateur working and research environment, and inadequate management. Being able to offer staff more money in this situation is unlikely to attract quality staff.

The Minister himself seems to have had minimum personal contact with Universities, with only an undergraduate degree and post-graduate diploma, nearly a quarter of a century ago. Most of his working life has been spent in the peculiar and limited atmosphere of politics. This hardly makes him an expert on our Universities.

Optimum economic growth with all its benefits, professionally distributed, is the key to a country’s success. This can only be achieved if the potential of all its people can be liberated. It also involves talented and knowledgeable leadership. That seems to be what is currently missing.

For the past year, since retiring and graduating, I have been a Fellow at one of our local Universities. The promises made, such as being involved in at least 2 pieces of their research into ageing (my field), and involvement in a developing aged care facility, didn’t materialise. All I was left with was access to the University library so that I could look up journals with a view to publishing some of my research. I spent the first half of the year putting my research into book form and submitting it to publishers, so far unsuccessfully. Sometimes this can be a good sign. Harry Potter is notorious not only for being a best seller but for the number of rejections it had first! Consequently I have only just approached the subject of getting published professionally. I have also presented papers at conferences, including 3 such presentations at an International conference in India which were well received and supported. I would have thought that promotional activities like this for the University should have more than outweighed the cost of providing me with a library card!
Are Universities in Australia so concerned with the bottom line financially that they have lost the sight of their purpose, which should be to promote knowledge and further it? This should be their first and last objective. Instead of that they seem to be almost entirely consumed with costs and how to retrieve them. The University described above has embraced one of the local male sports teams to bring attention to itself! Knowledge and research no longer seem to be important. As one who got my first degree, and has been involved in some form with Universities, both in Australia and overseas, for over 50 years I am far from impressed.
The world exists, and can only flourish, on knowledge. Part of that knowledge is involvement with physical activities but there are plenty of expert areas which can take care of that, not Universities which seem to be prepared to sacrifice knowledge and learning in more mainstream academic areas to be involved.
I did apply for a similar position as Fellow at one of our more respected Universities. They didn’t even do me the courtesy of responding.
So where does that leave me and my research? One major provider of ageing health care, with a number of sites, has already adopted my research as part of its philosophy so it is already being effective. I will continue with my research and hope to promote it, both through presentations at national and international conferences, and I will start publishing professionally as an individual.
Aged health and lifestyle should be more about keeping the target group fit and healthy and contributing to society, rather than how we can manage increasing costs in this field, particularly when ignoring research findings are adding to these costs. Universities should be about more than just assisting a local male football team to have a successful season.