The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

THE bu­reau­cracy can save it­self the bother of pre­par­ing a brief for who­ever is min­is­ter for higher ed­u­ca­tion af­ter the elec­tion and just sug­gest they read Peter Coal­drake and Lawrence St­ed­man’s Rais­ing the Stakes: Gam­bling with the Fu­ture of Uni­ver­si­ties (Scribe, 280pp, $32.95). For a start, their book is as com­pre­hen­sive a guide to the state of the sec­tor as an in­com­ing min­is­ter could eas­ily di­gest. Whether they read it right through in a few days will also test the new min­is­ter’s com­mit­ment to the port­fo­lio, be­cause an easy book this is not.

Coal­drake, long-serv­ing vice-chan­cel­lor of the Queens­land Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy, and St­ed­man, a pol­icy ad­viser there, are se­ri­ous men in­deed and thor­ough to a fault. They have dis­tilled their ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence and learn­ing into a com­pre­hen­sive guide to an im­mensely com­plex in­dus­try. How­ever, if in­for­ma­tion is the up­side, their book is also light on for ideals and in­spi­ra­tion.

Which is what uni­ver­si­ties need. This is an enor­mous in­dus­try, em­ploy­ing 100,000 peo­ple, ed­u­cat­ing an­other mil­lion and gen­er­at­ing $15 bil­lion in ex­port in­come from for­eign stu­dents study­ing at Aus­tralian in­sti­tu­tions. It is also an engine of eco­nomic growth, one that we all should hope will en­dure to power Aus­tralia in the world­wide knowl­edge econ­omy of the 21st cen­tury. But uni­ver­si­ties face chal­lenges, rang­ing from new on­line providers of­fer­ing cour­ses to peo­ple every­where on the planet, to a fund­ing co­nun­drum — govern­ment will not give uni­ver­si­ties the re­sources they re­quire but will not al­low them to charge fees to meet their needs.

The au­thors work through a mass of im­mensely com­plex is­sues such as th­ese and do it in de­tail that all but the wonki­est of pol­icy wonks will strug­gle to di­gest. They put all their ev­i­dence in his­tor­i­cal con­text and com­pare the Aus­tralian ex­pe­ri­ence against what our al­lies and com­peti­tors — in the case of Bri­tain, the US, Canada and New Zealand, one and the same, are up to.

How­ever, the book’s great strengths are also its weak­ness. It is an im­mensely use­ful text for peo­ple in the in­dus­try who need a pol­icy man­ual. The prob­lem is higher ed­u­ca­tion needs broader com­mu­nity sup­port, which will come from set­ting out the in­dus­try’s achieve­ments and what it needs to help Aus­tralia pros­per. Coal­drake and St­ed­man are too much the tech­nocrats to sim­plify and spruik. But the strengths in peo­ple you want run­ning a univer­sity are weak­nesses in peo­ple pro­mot­ing it.

‘‘ Uni­ver­si­ties strug­gle to reg­is­ter on the po­lit­i­cal radar,’’ they write, with­out ad­e­quately ex­plain­ing why such an enor­mous in­dus­try, and force for good, has so lit­tle pub­lic recog­ni­tion. In April, the Gil­lard govern­ment ripped $2.3bn in pub­lic fund­ing from uni­ver­si­ties, plus present and prospec­tive stu­dents, which the op­po­si­tion says it will not re­turn if it wins the elec­tion. It was a

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