The Commonwealth Privateers
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The Commonwealth Privateers

It’s a bit like one of those Christmas cracker riddles. In the UK it might be a question such as, ‘What claims to be public but is actually very private? Answer: The elite public (private) schooling system.’ Here in Australia, we could easily replace that conundrum with one of our own. ‘What claims to be ‘not for profit’ but is actually very ‘profit-driven? The answer, of course, is ‘our government-subsidised university sector.’

It has been over 30 years since Gough Whitlam’s vision of free higher education ceased being a reality. Nonetheless, university vice-chancellors have continued to rely heavily upon Commonwealth funding – though increasingly moving towards other revenue sources. However, with major growth in full-fee international education, overseas Foreign Branch Campuses and university public/private partnerships and franchises with overseas partners, making money through international education has become a major driver for our corporatised university sector.

The Whitlam era perception of universities is now very much out of date. Our higher education environment, although still heavily subsidised by federal and state governments, is currently anything but free for domestic students. And the largesse doled out to universities by the government (including that proffered by state premiers in their re-election campaigns) isn’t free money. It all comes from the public purse – not from any politician’s ‘generous’ personal hip pocket. Likewise, the HECS fee support enabling students to enter tertiary studies is a taxpayer-funded loan and not a donation.

Questions around university funding have been front and centre during the COVID-19 crisis and much gnashing of teeth has accompanied concerns over the attendant drop in international student revenue. But, according to The Australian (4th Jan 2023) the international supply tap is back on with a vengeance and we still possess some extremely wealthy universities with highly remunerated leaderships.

This is also the case overseas. The reports that the Russell Group universities disclosed astounding international fee gains this year with two entities doubling their international student revenue -earning an approximate extra $151,000,000 and $168,000,000 respectively. The Australian notes that many Australian universities are now also reporting a surge in international student interest of somewhere between 17 and 40 per cent.

Currently, according to the Shiksa Study Abroad website Melbourne University has private income from its over 44% level of international student enrolments with RMIT at 46% and Federation and Murdoch universities being still higher. The obvious plus for Australia is that the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) show that, in 2019–20, international education was worth $37.4 billion to Australia. That said, government figures also reveal that back in April 2016, the amount of money owed to the Australian government under the HECS scheme for domestic students was AUD $60 billion. This was anticipated to increase to $180 billion by 2026. Essentially, this represents unresolved student debt accrued through funding universities.

The Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) accurately declares that Australia gains social, cultural and skilled workforce benefits from international education. This is of course another undeniable major benefit of hosting international student education. But what percentage of any Commonwealth-funded university’s enrolment should reasonably be given over to fee-paying international student education before universities are seen as ‘more private than public’ in their operations?

Meanwhile, in Holland parliament has called for universities to ‘stop international recruitment’ due, in part, to a crisis in housing. Statistics Netherlands (CBS) reports that over 40% of first-years enrolled in Dutch universities last year were international students whilst in the UK there are also talks of similar international student and migrant quotas. How far behind them are we in respect to our housing and cost of living issues?

Ultimately, Minister Clare’s much-anticipated review of higher education policy must surely take into account that our Commonwealth universities are now highly profit-motivated and financially successful whilst also deeply questioning whether our corporatised institutions will meaningfully seek to resolve university access issues for ‘the underrepresented’ groups he has identified as key to his concerns? After all, our universities have done a pretty good job of keeping them out so far.




Emeritus Professor Jim Mienczakowski is a Higher Education Advisor




Emeritus Professor Greg Whateley is Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice President (Academic) at Group Colleges Australia