The Magic of a Spell Down Under

After working at various HE institutions in the UK, Philip Harvey moved to Australia to become Vice President Operations at the University of Canberra. Two years into the role, he reflects on the similarities and differences between the higher education sector in the UK and Australia. 

At the two-year mark and approaching the end of my contract here in Canberra, seems a fitting time to look back on working in HE in Australia and put a few thoughts together for AHUA colleagues.

It’s been an enormous privilege to experience a little of what Australian universities have to offer and to see first hand academic and professional staff in HE (and yes, those labels are the same) motivated by many of the universal core values and principles that draw us all into working in universities: A constant search to provide the best education to our students; relentless efforts to open up each opportunity and take down every barrier such that all who can benefit from HE can do so; and the push to give students that special, mind-blowing, liberating taste of knowledge creation, and with it the inspiration and hungry determination to go on to solve problems no one else has.

Despite being on a continent surrounded by oceans (or maybe because of it) Australians share the understanding that the challenges facing society are global and we need solutions from our universities that can transcend borders, take down walls, make sense to many cultures, and have application in a various contexts. A problem shared is a problem halved.

Not that Australians would put it like that….

In 2015, an Australian friend and I set out determinedly to conquer the Australia Museum’s latest exhibition in Sydney – ‘Trailblazers – Australia’s 50 Greatest Explorers’. Since my teenage years, I had marveled at the exploits of Captain Cook, Burke and Wills and their like, and here was my chance to get up close, touch the sand and feel the heat, eat the ship’s biscuit, and swap notes with my Australian co-explorer. “So, tell me, what do you know about Burke and Wills?”, I ventured, hoping for some local tales or folklore into why their incredible journey into terra incognita from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1860/61, had ended so catastrophically. “Aw, look, they were a couple of English guys, tried to discover stuff, and then they died.” My first taste of blunt Australia.  Clive James and Unreliable Memoirs came flooding back.

Getting to grips with the Australian HE sector was in some ways equally straightforward. The context’s all too familiar. Politicians here are grappling with the dilemmas of taking the cap off student numbers and managing the fiscal consequences, treading the tightrope of how much should be borne by the state and the individual.

In recent weeks, the expert panel set up by Simon Birmingham, the Minister for Education and Training under the Turnbull Government, has submitted its report on HE reform and the sector waits with bated breath ahead of the next budget. A 20% cut in public funding for HE previously included in the forward budget estimates has not been rescinded despite pressure from Universities Australia and much lobbying to end an ‘era of uncertainty’. Domestic student numbers are flattening after the rapid increase in 2012 following deregulation. Institutions continue to compete hard for international students and with considerable and effective Government support. Generally, international off-shore numbers remain buoyant with another annual increase of nearly 12% between 2015 and 2016 – the domination of the Chinese market in the make-up of the student body on campus is generating similar challenges to those experienced in the UK.

Research funding remains a key watchword with research infrastructure under particular pressure following the Government’s decision to close the $3.7bn Education Investment Fund. And a propos it is timely that last week’s Australia Day was marked by the award of Australian of the Year to Professor Alan Mackay-Sim (Emeritus, Griffith University) for his pioneering work on stem cells and regeneration and repair of the nervous system making dramatic positive differences to patients who have suffered spinal cord injuries. This year’s award to Mackay-Sim has been widely welcomed in the Australian media.

Although the broader landscape for HE shares some notable morphology with that in the UK, working here has revealed some interesting nuances on matters of detail. Take for example the interest in equity and access to HE. When I left the UK in 2015, the performance metrics being scrutinized were around ethnic origin, social class, low participation neighborhoods, and the relationship of some of these to gender, particularly the underperformance of white males from poor backgrounds. Here in Australia, although the metrics are similarly oriented, the emphasis and narrative is almost exclusively directed towards levels of participation by students self-identified as from Australian Indigenous and Torres Strait Island populations. And, from a university management perspective, the organization of services in universities designed to exclusively support such students.

A particular story caught my eye. In November 2016, a Federal Circuit Court Judge dismissed a case being brought under race discrimination law (with the support of the Human Rights Commission) against three students of Queensland University of Technology who had posted allegedly racist comments on Facebook following an incident when they were “Just kicked out of the unsigned indigenous computer room”. I was reminded by the case of the intense interest of the UK media in 2013 when UCL banned an Islamic group from taking part in events on campus following an enforced segregation of women at an event in an auditorium.  The organization of services on campus exclusively for particular ethnic or social groups is perhaps far removed from notions of enforced segregation but the cases underscore the importance of being cautious about creating borders or boundaries in our own universities, while we worry about the tensions and consequences of erecting impenetrable borders between nation states.

It was with these complexities in mind, and conscious of my lack of even superficial understanding of Australian history, that I embraced the opportunity to visit indigenous communities in Alice Springs and Uluru with Professor Peter Radoll, Dean of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leadership and Strategy in Canberra and a leading aboriginal researcher. What other job, I thought, could give me such an opportunity?

Peter and I spent three days together driving on (and off) roads in the Northern Territories visiting communities and community centres. The conversation has left a deep mark on me. Peter’s polite, gentle, deeply insightful and consistently humorous responses to my elementary questioning about everything from art and technology, to concepts of home, and to nationhood, was nothing short of personal spiritual growth, and as I realize now, part of the magical spell that Australia has cast in my direction.

But maybe this is the heat talking – 38 degrees and not a breath of wind. Time for a stubby. And then flat out like a lizard drinking…