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