Michael Wesley

La Trobe University Press 2023

RRP $34.99

More Australians than ever now have university degrees, or are attending university, and yet we still regularly hear of criticisms of them. Some well-informed, but many not. It does seem that quite a few Australians, even those who have attended a university, have mixed, and perhaps contradictory, feelings about them.

In this well written, eloquent, and easy to understand book, Michael Wesley analyses what is behind this attitude, and he is more than well qualified to comment, being deputy vice-chancellor global, culture and engagement at the University of Melbourne. He was formerly dean of ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific. 

The introduction explains:

“This book examines the complex, ambiguous, ambivalent place that universities, as increasingly consequential institutions, occupy in Australian life. It focuses on six aspects of Australia’s universities where they sit at tension points of conflicting expectations and pressure in contemporary Australia. What they all reveal are significant gulfs between what Australian society sees, and what universities want society to understand about them, between what higher education is trying to achieve and what role universities should be playing in contemporary society.”


“This book is intended to provoke and open up a broader discussion about the role of universities in Australian life.”

The chapters cover six topics related to universities, variously titled: Money; Value; Loyalty; Integrity; Ambition and Privilege. The concluding chapter is titled Transformation.

One interesting, and to me, surprising fact, is the huge size of Australian universities relative to universities in some other western countries. Australian universities have an average of 35,579 students, whereas the average in the United Kingdom is 13,740, and 4,500 in the United States. Wesley discusses what impact this has on people’s perceptions of universities. The growth has been phenomenal. In 1964 there were 76,188 enrolled university students. By 2020 that number had grown to 1,622,867.

In the chapter dealing with money, Wesley explains that the first Australian universities founded in the 19th and early 20th centuries were all public institutions funded by government. The chapter then looks at the way that funding models have changed over the years to the present time where there is such heavy reliance on fees from overseas students. It also considers how this change has impacted upon public perceptions, with some people suggesting that universities have “sold out”, and that money has perverted the very idea of what a university should be. Wesley suggests that:

“The choices, tensions, compromises and passions surrounding university financing in Australia reveal an important facet of this society’s ambivalence towards them.”

In chapter 2 the author examines the question of how much universities are valued by the community commenting that:

“In common with other English-speaking countries, Australia has inherited a long tradition of scepticism about academics and universities. ‘Academic’ is widely used as an antonym for practical, relevant or important, and is often a trigger for derision or dismissal.”

The chapter explains that universities in Australia inherited a tradition of self-government, but that in the 1980’s they came under significant pressure to reform their structures and management practices. Wesley looks at how this was done and the consequences.

The chapter titled Loyalty looks at the huge growth of full fee-paying overseas university students and the implications of this growth. By 2019 Australia had captured over 18% of the international student market. 

There have also been huge pressures on academics to internationalise. We read:

“The pressure to publish and collaborate internationally, and the lure of international conferences and research, have steadily dragged academics’ gaze beyond Australia’s borders.”

Wesley notes that the rise in the numbers of international students has been accompanied by a rise in community anxiety about such things as whether they are taking the place of Australian students, and “that international students erode the academic standards of Australia’s universities and compromise the experience of local students.”

In chapter 4 the author turns to a thorny issue that often generates heated debate between those with differing world views:

“When a controversial event on a campus hits the headlines, two tribes take to the field, each having honed now familiar interpretations and culprits and sharpened accusations against the other side. What has now become widely referred to as ‘culture wars’ is animated by two incompatible views of the broad social purpose of the university in modern Australia: one which sees the university as the last bastion of traditional Western values; and the other that believes the university is a vehicle for progressive social change.”

Fascinating stuff indeed.

In the chapter headed ‘Ambition’, Wesley discusses the way that Australia’s universities have adapted, and are further adapting to “the beginning of a global transformation that is characterised by the convergence of digital, physical and biological technologies…”. It is posited that there is “considerable evidence that universities’ framing of their central role in Australia’s knowledge economy has gained traction.” One example provided is the contribution made by university expertise to Australia’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Chapter 6 deals with the important question of social equity in relation to universities, suggesting that for “much of their first century, Australian universities were unashamedly places of social privilege.” However, despite the huge growth in the numbers of Australians being able to attend university, significant inequities remain. Wesley well illustrates one practical outcome of such inequities with the tale of students Phoebe and Connor. Phoebe, from a background of wealth and privilege and Connor from a more working-class background, who struggles to fit his studies around work and other commitments.

In the final chapter Wesley summarises the various issues and challenges facing Australian universities and their role in Australia, and how difficult it seems to be to have a non-acrimonious discussion, but that such a discussion is necessary. In the final chapter we read:

“It will also be difficult to have a discussion about the intrinsic, non-remunerative elements of universities amid the current obsession with the utilitarian benefits of higher education. Then there is the low political salience of universities in Australia: what politician is going to be prepared to sacrifice time and political capital on rethinking higher education in Australia when the electoral stakes are so low? Consequently, it is the universities that much lead the discussion. They must overcome their collective action problem and adopt the perspective of the higher education sector as a whole, rather than from interests of their own institutions. This will be the ultimate test of whether they really are Australia’s intellectual leaders – the mind of the nation.”

This is a well-timed, thought provoking and important book that deserves a wide readership stretching well beyond the university community. I hope it does provoke a “broader discussion about the role of universities in Australian life.” 

And let’s hope that the discussion is courteous, respectful and civil.

Highly recommended.

John Watts

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