Capitalism Within the enterprise: The case of international education in Australia

Year: 2001

Author: Marginson, Simon

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

In the last 25 years public national investment in Australian higher education has dropped from 1.5% to 0.8% of GDP despite a doubling of student numbers. After two decades of neo-liberal policies, per student public funding of teaching and research functions is 40 % of the 1977-78 level, and growth in the number domestic students has stopped. However private funding has grown extraordinarily, in the form of charges to domestic students (the Higher Education Contribution Scheme), and from international fee-paying students from whom annual revenues are now at one fifth the level of public investment. These revenues have become crucial to the financial survival of Australian universities, now positioned by government as self-managing institutions responsible for their own economy and quality. The international education program is not a fulsome engagement in the ‘global knowledge economy’ but is narrowly targeted to students and courses likely to generate maximum short-term returns. The majority of students are from Anglo-Chinese families in Southeast Asia with the capacity to pay fees. Enrolments are increasingly dominated by vocational courses in Business and Computing; with a shrinking proportion of research students.

As the fifth largest provider of international education, along with the UK the most commercial in approach, and focused on generic Anglo-American Business and Computing courses, Australian higher education is a primary agent of neo-liberal globalisation in education. This does not necessarily strengthen Australia’s universities, political economy or cultural self-determination. The revenues from international education have not substituted for the lost public funding, being largely absorbed in the costs of raising those revenues or in other corporate operations (part-time teaching in Business, recruitment, marketing, off-shore offices, finance and risk management, quality assurance etc.). The result is serious tensions between global development and local-national capacity and quality: commercial boom within an impoverished public infrastructure. While international students have grown from 25,000 (1990) to 83,000 (1999), the overall student-staff ratio has risen from 12 to 1 (1990), to 18 to 1 (1999). Total public and private funding shows little decline, and the corporate side of universities is growing apace, but Australian higher education is in the throes of a serious crisis, one that is imperfectly concealed by techniques of marketing and quality assurance.