August 3, 2022

Public policy for public universities

By Paul Harris, Executive Director, IRU


I spent the last few years working with universities in the United States, where private four-year institutions outnumber public institutions more than two to one. In the US system, the top ten highly ranked research universities are all private.

More than once, I heard senior leaders from elite private universities say that, if they didn’t like the policies of the current government, they could just do their own thing and wait them out. Even if the government withheld funding as a result, elite US universities could survive with their huge private endowments.

The situation is fundamentally different in Australia. We have a public system of higher education, built up with long-term policy and funding from both state and federal governments.

Up until World War Two, Australia only had six universities. Today there are 42 universities across the country, the vast majority public.

The history of the members of the Innovative Research Universities (IRU) goes back to the 1960s and early 1970s when, under both Liberal and Labor governments, there was an investment in innovative forms of university teaching and research to meet the needs of the nation.

Our expanded public system is highly ranked and well respected globally.

But in recent years, there has been a push to privatise aspects of both education and research. This is distorting our public system and has the potential to curtail the full benefits that society should expect and receive from its public universities.

The new government’s commitment to an Australian Universities Accord is an opportunity to reset public policy and ensure that we maximise the public value that is delivered through both education and research.

For university students, the Job-Ready Graduates (JRG) policy package marked a major shift in the funding of higher education. Since the introduction of HECS, students and government have shared the cost of education, recognising that it provides both private and public benefits. But JRG shifts more of the costs to students and makes certain kinds of courses more expensive for them.

This has disproportionate impacts on particular groups of students, including women and Indigenous students. And it shifts attention away from the substantial public benefits of a more educated and skilled society, including young citizens well prepared to faces the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.

Public funding is undeniably tight, with many worthy claims on federal and state budgets. But there are also quiet but significant shifts underway in the allocation of this public money – for example, as a share of the total Australian Government spend on education and training, the 2022 budget papers show that funding for universities declines in the period 2016-2026 (from 28% to 22%), while funding for private schools increases (from 32% to 37%).

At the same time, progress on access and equity in higher education has stalled.

Across the IRU, 50% of our students are the first in their family to attend university. Improving equity is the right thing to do and will deliver broad long-term public benefits across society, as well as helping to address skills shortages in the near-term.

In research, universities have been incentivised to place more emphasis on partnerships with the private sector and to measure their impact through metrics such as patents and commercialisation. Over the last decade, IRU universities have increased their collaboration with industry by more than 250%.

Engaging with companies – large and small – should be part of the mission of universities connected to their communities. But policy and funding should not privilege one pathway to impact at the expense of others. Our public universities also have a crucial role in partnering with community groups and with local, state and federal governments to ensure that new knowledge can deliver the broadest possible public benefit.

The new research commercialisation programs – announced by the previous government and to be implemented by the new government – should be opened up to support the full diversity of partnerships and knowledge translation across society. The focus on patents should be widened to recognise the productivity gains from economic and social spillovers from university IP.

The long-term contribution of our universities to society is much broader than just an economic return, but public goods are harder to measure. Working in partnership on this challenge as part of the foundations of a new Universities Accord would be an excellent step.

Unlike the US system, in Australia universities and governments are bound together in seeking to maximise the public benefit from our public system. The Accord process provides an important opportunity to examine structural shifts that have happened in our system, and to ensure that private benefits don’t come at the expense of the public good.


This article first appeared in the Higher Education section of The Australian, under the heading “Labor’s universities accord could reset policy and maximise public benefit”.