Private and controversial

Rebecca Wong probes private universities.

Bond University. Bond University.

In Sneha’s first year of Medicine at Bond University, one of the guys in her class announced that both of his parents had BMWs. Ask most students what they know about private universities and they’ll talk about wealthy kids paying their way through degrees they weren’t smart enough to get into. “It’s basically just rich white kids who come here,” Sneha says.

Looking at Bond’s campus, which boasts a man-made Lake Orr and a 48-hectare campus complete with a Sports and Recreation Centre, an Olympic-size swimming pool, and rugby and soccer fields, one walks away with the impression that this is a university for the dumb children of the rich. On the other hand, one campus of private Roman Catholic university Notre Dame is enclosed within the confines of Chippendale in Sydney’s CBD, overlooking little else but a busy Parramatta Road.

For Katie, however, it was the transfer from Notre Dame to a public university that proved to be a daunting experience. “At Notre Dame, lectures probably seated about 150 people, maybe even less. Here [at USyd] I’m sitting in a lecture theatre with 300 students around me, and it’s intimidating and hard to concentrate,” she explains.

Bond and Notre Dame both opened in 1989 as Australia’s first independent universities. Earlier this year, they were joined by Torrens University in Adelaide, offering non-subsidised, full-fee undergraduate degrees. Bond is relatively small with a student body of 7,000 and a trimester system that enables fast-tracked degrees. The 2015 Bond University Undergraduate Guide spruiks the benefits of “working with internationally renowned teachers in small personalised classes”, further emphasised by the comparatively high teaching quality and student satisfaction ratings that Bond received in the Good Universities Guide.

“I can just get through my degree a lot faster,” says Sneha. “Instead of waiting six years, I can do it (Medicine) in four and a half.” This intake allows Bond to cap its class sizes at 120 students per lecture and 12 students per tutorial, where staff get to know students practically by name.

Hashim, who transferred from the University of Melbourne, says, “They basically have an open door policy. And obviously they can’t have that at bigger universities… you get that one-on-one time whenever you want.”

Notre Dame is similarly small, with 11,000 students spread across its Broome, Fremantle and Sydney campuses. As a Roman Catholic university, its teaching curriculum is underpinned by a value-driven focus on philosophical and theological subjects. In particular, Notre Dame emphasises alternative pathways and flexible entry policies to students.

Oscar, who is studying a Bachelor of Media and Communications, was offered a place at Notre Dame even before he received his HSC results. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do so I was like, ‘Alright I’ll just take it,’ and it was a Commonwealth supported place, so half the fees are paid for.”

For those without a standard Year 12 qualification such as the HSC, Notre Dame accepts Special Tertiary Admissions Test (STAT) for almost all its undergraduate courses.

Like Bond, the flyers of Notre Dame also promote a “caring community atmosphere” with individualised teaching and a less alienating classroom experience. According to Sarah, who studies Psychology, Notre Dame is “a bit more nurturing, the classes were smaller so you get to know your lecturers and meet a lot more people”. Similarly, Katie, who studied a bridging course, describes the tutors and lecturers as more accommodating and engaged in the learning process, from helping students grasp large concepts to detailing the nitty gritty of assessment submission.

“We did all our stuff in APA style referencing, and they spent a long time making sure we knew exactly what we were doing.”

Smaller class sizes have also encouraged the development of a more close-knit community than exists within other, larger public institutions.

“At Notre Dame, I’d see the same people every day and I knew everyone’s faces,” Katie says.

“Every single person I’ve spoken to [at Sydney] is like, ‘Yeah, I don’t have any friends in my classes’. For some reason, here it’s like, ‘I’ve been here for four years and I still don’t know anyone’s names in my classes.’ That seems very strange to me.”

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In private schooling, government funding is buffered by the political imperative of parental choice. Private schools are viewed as the purveyor of all manner of opportunities that are invaluable to the social and professional development of a child. The Independent Schools Council of Australia wields considerable political clout, having endorsed the federal Gonski reforms in July 2013 only after the addition of a $150 million sweetener to independent school funding.

It is surprising, then, that this generally favourable view of private institutions does not extend to tertiary education. Indeed the dominance of public unis, making up for 41 out of 44 tertiary institutions in Australia, is viewed positively by those who see high fees as a barrier to low-SES students. Perhaps the historical progression of university funding in Australia is to account for this. Many see the 74-89 period as the golden age of higher education in Australia. Following the Whitlam government’s abolition of university fees in 1974, tertiary education remained free for 15 years. Spearheaded by then Education Minister John Dawkins, the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) was introduced in 1989, and is based on a system of interest-free loans that are repaid once students reach a certain income threshold ($51,309 in 2013-14). HECS works in tandem with direct government funding for Commonwealth Supported Places (CSPs) in university degrees, ranging from $1,600 per student for Law to $17,800 for Agriculture.

The National Union of Students (NUS) consistently lobbies the Federal government to abolish fees for social equity, with their website proudly stating that the union “supports free education internationally” to ensure equal access to students from all socio-economic backgrounds.

Australian universities are often compared to America’s top colleges, which are all private. Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford charge an average of $50,000 – $60,000 per annum, while Sydney University’s most expensive undergraduate degree (Medicine/Commerce) is $67,000 for seven years’ full time study.

Critics of America’s education system point to the $1 trillion debt currently owed by students, many of who have struggled to find jobs in the flagging post-Global Financial Crisis economy. In response to the prospect of fee deregulation, NUS president Deanna Taylor stated “an income-contingent loan scheme … is not an excuse to gouge more money out of students’ pockets and leave them crippled with debt.”

However the National Commission of Audit report, which was released last Friday, recommends that student contributions to higher education costs should actually be increased, with HECS loan repayments coming into effect as soon as graduates begin earning the minimum wage.

In the current political climate, it seems unlikely that there will be any reduction in fees any time soon.

* * *

When flipping through the prospectus for Sydney University, it’s the allure of sandstone and prestigious alumni that entices prospective students to enrol. Perhaps this is not a bad move, given that even Oscar opines an express wish to be able to lie on the grass that Notre Dame’s concrete labyrinth does not provide.

“Nothing beats that quadrangle at Sydney, it’s just that sort of American college feeling … those big prestigious grounds that give you a sense of purpose there, whereas here it’s sort of like an office building,” he comments.

The relatively younger Bond and Notre Dame stand in stark contrast to Sydney’s marketing. Established a mere 25 years ago, they lack the entrenched historical prestige for which institutions like Sydney are widely known and esteemed. Even Notre Dame’s website acknowledges this: “It will be some years before it [the university] can be regarded as a mature institution.”

“The uni’s improved a lot since 2010,” Oscar contends. “The café used to be a car wash, now they’ve gained like five or six buildings in four years … they’re just expanding.”

Instead, the marketing of these private institutions stresses teaching and learning outcomes within the university market.

These competing marketing strategies reflect a more complex nexus of competitive pressures. In 1997, the Howard Government initiated six per cent upfront funding cuts to tertiary education, with further cuts proposed in 2013 to fund the Gonski reforms.Along with a cap on domestic fees, the proportion of full fee-paying international students has surged. They now represent a quarter of the student population, making Australia the world’s third largest provider of international education services, outranked only by Britain and the United States.

In a “demanding budgetary situation”, the Kemp-Norton Review noted the importance of the international student market as a source of revenue for universities. Members of the Group of Eight (Go8), a coalition of Australia’s top-ranked universities, rely on their reputations as innovative research institutions to compete in the global and national education markets. Sydney University’s website advertises its impressive placement in the QS World University Rankings, waxing lyrical about the benefits of studying its internationally renowned degrees. Getting a World University Ranking requires combining research with teaching and learning outcomes, including a minimum number of published papers as a prerequisite for consideration. As collating and comparing data on outcomes such as barriers to entry and staff-student rations is difficult, the emphasis in the rankings shifts to research. Andrew Norton, the Program Director of higher education at the Grattan Institute, believes that this is a particularly problematic aspect of the legacy of the Dawkins reforms. “Almost every academic is expected to be both a teacher and a researcher, and that’s not necessarily a particularly efficient way of doing either teaching or research,” he states.

Staff dissatisfaction with this trend is evident with the ‘Stop the Cuts’ campaign and subsequent strikes at Sydney University in 2012 and 2013. In his speech at a rally in 2013, Nick Riemer, English lecturer and National Tertiary Education Union member at Sydney University, accused university management of having a vision “predicated on competition, division, self-interest”. Heavy criticism has been fired at Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence for supporting extensive staff cuts while simultaneously spearheading the construction of the $385 million Centre for Obesity, Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease.

Bond and Notre Dame are less subject to these competitive funding pressures as they remain uninhibited by domestic fee caps. International students comprise 40 per cent of Bond’s intake, with American students representing by far the largest proportion. This can perhaps be explained by the emphasis on small class sizes similar to the US, where smaller, elite institutions differentiate from their larger, lower-tier public counterparts, also known as community colleges.

In the context of a comparatively small private sector, and absent the imperative to produce innovative research, Australia’s private universities are able to focus on teaching and cater to individual students’ needs. The 2014 Good Universities Guide gave Bond and Notre Dame five stars for teaching quality and overall satisfaction (based on graduate ratings), while Sydney University was given only one star, placing it in the bottom fifth of universities for each of these indicators.

Mina, who chose to study at Notre Dame because of the community setting, appreciates the flexibility that smaller classes allow. “You have all the resources that the teachers provide you with, the opportunities they give to go and see theatre shows … maybe an art show, that’s relevant to what you’re doing. And because there aren’t that many of us … it makes it easier to do that.”

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The most contentious aspect of the existence of private universities remains whether students can afford this kind of education. With hefty price tags of up to $300,000 for Medicine, Bond’s reputation for attracting moneyed students is perhaps not undeserved. Without access to subsidised university places or HECS loans, students must pay their fees up front. While some may have access to FEE-Help loans, these are limited to $120,000 and incur a 25 per cent interest fee.

For Georgia, the decision to study at Sydney Uni rather than Bond, despite being offered a 50 per cent scholarship, was partially a financial one as the baseline fee was still exorbitant.

“That aside, I think I definitely would have gone,” Georgia says.

“They wooed me because I was school captain,” she continued. “They kind of spoke to my ego a lot. It was sold to me as something that could get me into networks that were otherwise completely closed … an elite club that I should feel very privileged to be invited into.”

Several students admitted that Bond was the only university to offer them places in competitive courses such as Medicine when their ATAR did not meet public university cut-offs. Many were also willing to move interstate to attend university, which would add to their costs due to accommodation and living expenses. Almost all Bond scholarships are awarded on the basis of academic merit, extracurricular and leadership achievements, with none geared towards educational or economic disadvantage.Over at Notre Dame, fees are less prohibitive, ranging from $18,000 for Nursing to $52,000 for Law. Limited HECS loans are available for the first year of some government-designated high priority degrees, including Health Science, Medicine and Nursing.

“All my friends who go here, they’re all on FEE-Help,” Oscar says. “Their parents aren’t paying their fees, so they’ve got a huge amount of debt to pay off.”

Counter this with Sydney, where studying any degree must meet an ATAR cut-off of at least 70, with higher cut-offs for premier undergraduate degrees like Law and Physiotherapy.

Despite its higher fees, Notre Dame outperforms many of Australia’s top public universities including Sydney, Melbourne and ANU in participation across socioeconomic status. A 2009 study undertaken by Chris Ryan (ANU) and Buly Cardak (La Trobe) found that low-SES students with equivalent ATARs are as likely to attend university as their high-SES counterparts. This suggests that a student’s capacity to do well in high school is a better guarantee of access to university than wealth.

At Notre Dame, Tertiary Enabling and Foundation Year programs are offered as an alternative pathway to those who did not get the required ATAR to enter university, or may have suffered educational disadvantage. These bridging courses are fully funded by the government, and are advertised as providing a study environment that is “both challenging and supportive”.

“When I first started uni I hated it,” Oscar says. “I took four years off, and now I’m 23… and I’m doing quite well, and it makes me want to stay and I’m learning everything that I guess I can.”

“They’ve got a really good film school here, it’s really involved, it’s got a lot of smaller classes.”

* * *

Crusading against higher university fees is popular as this is an aspect of education over which the government can exert control. It is more difficult to admit that there exist less tangible barriers to access, such as the competitive and prestige-driven atmosphere of bigger universities.

Despite a good quality of education at Notre Dame, Oscar plans to transfer to UTS next year. When it comes to job interviews and applications, it’s a more “respectable” university.

Still, the impression of a colder environment at bigger public universities persists. “Here I’m somebody, whereas I feel like if I go somewhere big like UTS I’d just become a dot in this huge ocean of people,” he says.

Vice Chancellor Michael Spence.

Michael Spence

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