The End of "Going to Uni"

Some readers will remember "going to Uni". This was an experience shared by a small number of Australians, who were academically very able as well as financially secure, or assisted by Government. "Going to Uni" meant participating in an elite experience, where personal connections with peers and sometimes with professors were highly significant; where both cultivation and critique of western and other intellectual traditions and other forms of pure learning were usually entertained, beyond recent fashion or current demand for skills; where the texture of life usually involved other demands or pursuits, whether social activities or social activism, beyond the lectures and the jobs necessary to maintain the mere facts of studying and staying alive.

"Going to Uni" has been languishing for some years, and Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard just last week proclaimed the epitaph drafted for it by Professor Denise Bradley's recent Review of higher education in Australia. Part of this proclamation is just the description of reality. As the DPM put it in her speech last week, the changes of the last few decades have seen the transformation of "a tiny, boutique higher education system into first an elite, then a popular, and finally a mass system". "Mass" will mean 40% of Australians completing degrees. Elite, it is not.

The DPM has noted the transformation of the system; perhaps it would be more accurate to say we have seen the actual emergence of a system, from what had previously been just a small collection of institutions and communities. Those "Unis" of old, small, elite and largely comparable, have now been joined by an array of other institutions with varied histories, claims and missions. So now instead of a small set of institutions we have a system which, despite the generalizations made or implied in much policy, involves vastly different experiences and outcomes.

Doubtless there are things to mourn about the end of the old model. There is a more profound vision attached to the idea of a "university" than current policies reflect. There is far too little involved in the student experience of many attending Australian institutions of higher learning, beyondfrom their formal classes and qualifications.

There were also things about the old model not to mourn, such as a social elitism which made it hard for students with great potential, but less capital, to enter or flourish. And the value of having a greater number of Australians from varied backgrounds having access to some form of higher education is not to be underestimated.

Yet we would deceive ourselves if we imagined that the retention of the word "university" meant that the hypothetical 40% will have access to all the word once meant. "Going to Uni" no longer means anything more than that someone is undertaking a post-secondary course. As the system itself seeks to do more and more, just being in the system will come to mean less and less. What means more now and in future is the specific place, the program, the people.

In the United States, to draw a comparison, it is only vaguely informative to say that someone is "going to College" (translating to their idiom) . What is really significant is where they go to College. "College" covers a huge range of institutions and experiences, with little in common beyond beyond the fact of further education in some form. It means relatively little to say even that one has a particular kind of degree; what matters is demonstrated high achievement in that field, stemming from a well-resourced environment where there are outstanding peers and teachers.

The use of the term "university" for the new mass Australian system as a whole may be unfortunate, but is now a given. The challenge for those of us involved in Australian higher education, and who remember what was good about "going to Uni" - as well as what was not - is not to allow the less-than-inspiring character of the system itself to distract us from the opportunities to do worthwhile things within it. "Going to Uni" will mean all sorts of things now; but within the system there will continue to be communities of learning where experiences of uncompromising excellence are made available to those who can benefit most and contribute most, for the good of the learning community and the wider community.

No comments: