Australia, clever country or nitwit nation?

| July 31, 2012

A lot has changed in Australian tertiary education in the past decades and not all of it has been good for the country, says Donald Meyers. He looks at the impact of reforms on our academic standards.

Prior to 1990, Australian universities enrolled students largely from the top 20% of high school leavers. All degree programs had academic entry requirements.

The “reforms” imposed on universities by the Hawke government in the late 1980s in the name of “access” and “equity” provided the perverse incentive to enrol large numbers of students, irrespective of ability, as the easiest way to generate income. A number of institutions now routinely enrol many students from the bottom half of high school leavers. 

The reforms have had an entirely predictable impact on academic standards. The practical outcome was driven home for me in 2000 when I left private enterprise to take up a position in the Faculty of Science at the University of the Sunshine Coast. It was here that I witnessed the appalling standard of literacy and numeracy of a large fraction of the first year science intake – young Australians fresh from high school!

How were staff supposed to teach students who did not know the order of arithmetic operations, were flummoxed by simple algebra and virtually paralysed with fear when required to perform calculations by hand? And this is not to mention those who cannot write basic, intelligible English and comprehend written instructions. Not only were these students highly unlikely to succeed at university, by my estimation they would experience difficulty negotiating the daily demands of working life. It was this experience that formed the first point of departure for my recently published book, Australian Universities: A Portrait of Decline. 

As the university bureaucracy eagerly embraced the reforms, it is not surprising that the telescope was raised to the blind eye whenever demonstrable evidence of declining standards came into view. Indeed the general response of faculty and department heads to course failure rates that potentially threaten institutional income is to browbeat the offending academics.

The cudgel is then passed to university educationalists (those who teach Education courses to trainee teachers) who further denigrate the teaching staff by proclaiming that all student failure reflects the inability of academics to teach and formulate appropriate assessment. With the blessing of the bureaucracy, educationalists use their baseless “theories” to meddle with the content and assessment of courses taught by experts so that students will be more likely to pass.

The irony is that these same theories also underpin learning, teaching and curricula in the pre- tertiary education system. While educationalists and education bureaucrats have gone to great lengths to dupe the public into believing all is well, the demonstrably low scholastic ability of a significant proportion of first year university students points directly to broad-scale failure. As this failure is now propagating through the university system and into the professional work force, the promotion of educationalists and their fanciful ideas by university bureaucrats can only be seen as an attempt to further dupe the public.

Does anyone care? Certainly neither the bureaucracy nor the educationalists. They have political masters to serve and careers and empires to build, albeit on the back of student ignorance. 

If anyone should care, it should be all those who expect competent service from the staff of public and private organisations they are obliged to use. The academy, what is left of it, should also care that their craft has been so thoroughly debased.

Unfortunately, no patient can be cured until there is an admission of illness. Is anyone in a position of power willing to rise and publicly make this admission? 

Donald Meyers is an independent contractor in the environmental industry. He holds a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Queensland and has worked in the USA at the National Institutes of Health and the Békésy Laboratory of Neurobiology. After working for a San Francisco-based environmental non profit organisation (ARC Ecology) he took up a position with the Brisbane engineering and town planning consultancy, John Wilson and Partners. He returned to private enterprise in mid 2007 after being made redundant from the University of the Sunshine Coast. The e-version of his book Australian Universities: A Portrait of Decline is available from