Melbourne University vice chancellor Glyn Davis on funds, freedom and his future

24 Aug 2018

Financial Review August 24 2018 by Robert Bolton

Professor Glyn Davis, vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne and a leading advocate for and critic of Australia's higher education system, is relaxed and ready to eat and talk.

As we sit down at our table, the longtime owner of University Cafe in Carlton, Giancarlo Caprioli, walks in with a polystyrene box full of artichokes and tomatoes. He stops to greet Professor Davis and they chat about the ancient Gaggia coffee machine next to us; it's decided they'll ask the photographer for a picture of them with the machine for old time's sake. "The professor's been coming here for years," says Caprioli before disappearing into the kitchen.

When Professor Davis leaves his role as vice-chancellor in October, after 13 years, he will leave behind a dramatically changed university. During his tenure he remodelled course structure, tore up 96 undergraduate degrees and replaced them with six, boosted the budget from $1.1 billion to $2.56 billion and expanded the intake of international students.

He's been the chair of Universities Australia and the Group of Eight. He was a chair of Universitas 21 – a group of global research universities. He's on the board of the Association of Pacific Rim Universities and a director of the Menzies Centre in London. He gave the Boyer lectures in 2010 on higher education and last year wrote a seminal work on unis: The Australian Idea of a University.

He also has a second life.

His career began teaching public policy and political science. He was director-general of the Department of the Premier and Cabinet for Labor Queensland premier Peter Beattie. Prime minister Kevin Rudd made Davis co-chair of his Australia 2020 Summit and offered him the job of head of Prime Minister and Cabinet (which he didn't take).

It's that combination of public policy and a vice chancellor's career that made Professor Davis the choice for the 2018 Australian Financial Review Higher Education Lifetime Achievement Award. We immediately agree that while this implies an end to his achievements there's still more to come.

Choice for students

Davis has never been afraid to speak out and one of his criticisms is that Australian universities are all the same and that the country needs more diversity. It's the argument of his book, The Australian Idea of a University, and he's lobbied governments and entreated colleagues about it: remove most regulation and let specialist universities flourish. Davis' light-bulb moment came when he was a Harkness fellow at the University of California, Berkeley.

"It's about giving students choice. If you were a young person in the US you could choose from an array of institutions from very small, very liberal, arts colleges, right through to the very big public universities."

We are handed menus and served water. We order spaghetti with mushrooms, garlic and chilli for the vice chancellor, gnocchi al pomodoro for the reporter.

"It would be a damn good thing if we had some specialisation and that not every university should have to do research in every field," he says. "The law says you have to and every university tries to do research in every field and that's expensive. We don't have any highly specialised institutions. We don't have a university of engineering. We don't have an MIT or a Caltech. That would be a highly specialised institution."

The problem is the way we fund education. Universities get government funding to do both teaching and research. But neither are financed at their full cost so universities cross-subsidise research from teaching. Increasingly, that means leaning on international student income.

"In a system where you don't get full funding for either teaching or research you've got to subsidise both from somewhere. International students have lots of virtues in their own right: they provide a global presence and they enrich the institution. But they are also the necessary means [of funding]," he says.

"Many people on the campus would much prefer if government funded at the full-rate and we had fewer international students. But the world is as it is and we have to work with the parameters as they stand. Here's our food."

The food is not only fast, it's good. The vice-chancellor suggests we take a break from talking while we eat. Melbourne uni students are lucky to have a good affordable eatery just around the corner. The conversation drifts to the media but soon gets back on track.

Deep engagement

How would the vice chancellor allocate funding for higher education?

"In a market you just let institutions charge what they want. And the real cost of teaching is what they charge. But it's never been our tradition in Australia and it's never going to be our tradition. We've always had government setting fees. We don't have a system that has a rationale. Some students are paying almost the entire cost of their degree and some are not. So there's no fairness principle or economic return principle or national priority principle."

Davis easily segues between the reality of market forces and economic return with principles of equity and public good. It's a bit like listening to a political science lecture, which it possibly is. The vice-chancellor still lectures undergraduates in political science. He says the quality of the student intake at Melbourne is "stunning". He's impressed by their use of language, their sense of inquiry and their astonishing capacity with technology.

"I can only recommend to people who worry about technology, go and watch students use the online lectures. Because they can control them they often watch them twice or watch them at double speed, they'll work out the passages they're interested in and then they'll go back and interrogate them, back and forth. They're using the technology to deepen their engagement with the lecturer. It's far from being corrosive of education."

The abilities and optimism of students has clearly become part of his own outlook. He quotes some impressive figures: on any given teaching day Melbourne Uni is the fifth largest city in Victoria; it is the biggest export earner in Victoria (the second biggest is Monash University); and about 50 per cent of school students want to go to uni, compared to 15 per cent a generation ago. This puts Australia in a different league to the US and UK where universities are viewed with more suspicion in the community.

"We're all watching the United States, where universities are caught up in partisan debates and culture wars in quite spectacular ways. And we're seeing some of that rhetoric flow into Australia. You know it's a rare week that doesn't have an op-ed attacking the universities. That doesn't affect the community. Universities Australia did some research when I was chair and that said nearly 90 per cent of families hope their children will go to university. There aren't many institutions that can attract that level of support."

So the conversation naturally turns to the one thing universities are criticised for: efficiency. Or the lack of it. For example, why do most universities only have two 13-week semesters a year?

"I recognise that's what people think. At Melbourne we teach all through the year. We have summer semesters, we have two winter semesters. We have a million students who have done our MOOC online courses. It isn't true that we only teach for 26 weeks a year. That's an old view and a very tired view."

Before another question can be posed Professor Davis leans across the empty plates. "The second one that everyone always trots out is that half the academic staff at universities are administrators. And I always say, 'Well, think about a law firm or a consulting firm. The person who's up front. How many people behind that lawyer? Behind that principal consultant?' And if we were in an elite north American university that ratio would be two administrative staff for every academic. Ours isn't, it's about one-to-one. It's about as lean as you can run the system."

Explicit charter

The conversation pauses. There is another awkward question to ask: "Are you in talks with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation?" (The course fabulously endowed by the estate of businessman Paul Ramsay, but inadvertently set back by comments from the Centre's board member Tony Abbott, who implied a challenge to academic freedom.)

It turns out they did have talks, before the controversy over ANU, which knocked it back. Professor Davis has an outlet on Ramsay. Melbourne operates a unique model where all students do a basic degree and only specialise in their post grad studies. This has funding headaches of its own and has put the university at odds with government at times and might account for the fervour with which Professor Davis critiques government funding policy. But in the case of the Ramsay Centre, it was never going to be easy to mash together a specialist course on Western Civilisation with one of six basic degrees. So bullet dodged. And in any case there was a fall-back.

"We have a very explicit charter of academic freedom, written in 2009. I think in the 2000s as universities became more prominent they became bigger targets for criticism and a lot of institutions toughened up those rules in response to people trying to dictate what universities could do, and they bring you into conflict. You just need really good rules."

The table has been cleared but it's "no thanks" to coffee. The photographer would like more animation, so we switch topics. Professor Davis loves public policy. He was director general of the Department Premier and Cabinet in Queensland in the late 1980s. When Kevin Rudd invited him to run his department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Davis was only two years into a reform agenda at Melbourne. Would a newly-ex vice chancellor be interested in a new public policy life with a Labor government?

Labor's shadow minister for education, Tanya Plibersek, has promised a review of all post-secondary education. Professor Davis has long argued for a higher education commission?

"I might go back to teaching and research," he says. "And I might teach the next generation of public policy experts. I think teaching is the most wonderful thing we get to do."

The last few weeks in politics have been challenging to advocates of good public policy. The debate of the National Electricity Guarantee, the disintegration of the Liberal leadership all of which were about politics and public interest.

"Politics is a career in its own right and many of our current politicians have always been on that track. But it means our parliament isn't as diverse as it once was. And also the theatre of politics is exaggerated. What happens in parliament is theatre.

"One of our issues about good policy is the collapse of good media. There are fewer public spaces to have a public conversation. Social media works in different ways. Think about the conversation we've been having about the NEG. But we don't have good opportunities to have sustained debate. And that's a problem for any government trying to do major change. Think about the way Paul Keating used the Treasurer's position to educate the public about economic policy.

"He was assisted in the fact there was more substantive programming around him in television and newspapers that allowed that education to proceed."

The vice-chancellor is beginning to sound like the head of Prime Minister and Cabinet under a future Labor government.

The bill

University Cafe, Carlton Street, Lygon, Melbourne

  • 1 litre mineral water, $9
  • 1 gnocchi al pomodoro, $22
  • 1 spaghetti universitas, $18.50

Total including 10 per cent tip, $54.93