Marketing Australian Higher Education at the Turn of the 21st Century: A Precis of Reforms, Commercialisation and the New University Hierarchy

Article excerpt


Australian higher education literature chronicles a number of critical turning points in the industry that have changed the character and hierarchy of institutions. The partial commercialisation and corporatisation of higher education institutions in the 1990's, introduced to Australia the notion of the academic enterprise (Symes 1996; Marginson 1998). Universities at the turn of the 21st Century began to use marketing strategies to create a competitive advantage in the marketplace. The need to adopt marketing strategies was not only to protect the undergraduate student 'consumer' base that was under threat by intensified competition, but to also consolidate a position in the market. The aim of this paper is to precis the factors that lead to the introduction of market forces to the Australian higher education sector and how this created a new hierarchy among institutions. The paper is deliberately presented in past tense and references only publications from that time so as to convey an authentic and more vivid portrayal of that era.

Australian higher education at the turn of the 21st Century

The landscape of Australian higher education at the turn of the Century was unlike that experienced in the sector before. Australian higher education at that particular point in time was in transition with the early embedding of market forces. Australian universities at the turn of the 21st Century were diverse in character and served the interests of Australian society with their primary purpose being to create, acquire, apply and transmit knowledge (DETYA 1998). Established under parliamentary Acts, Australian universities were autonomous, self-accrediting post-secondary institutions with international links. Traditionally considered centres of research, universities offered both undergraduate and postgraduate teaching programs and were largely financed by the Commonwealth Government--with the exception of Notre Dame University and Bond University (Aitkin 1997; Nelson 2002). While the Commonwealth Government maintained a pivotal role, the responsibilities of higher education were officially shared with the States (Nelson 2002).

In Australia, participation in higher education was and remains voluntary (Meadmore 2001) . In the last decade of the 21st Century, the higher education sector grew by 30% from 534,500 students in 1991 to 659,500 students in 2000, mostly attributed to an increase in domestic, Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) funded undergraduates. Included in the growth between 1991 and 2000 was the steady rise in overseas students, mostly undergraduates, who accounted for 188,277 enrolments in 2000. Domestically, university participation totalled 3.9% of the Australian population at the turn of the 21st Century (Nelson 2002). Traditionally, higher education prepared students for professions that attracted higher rates of pay (King 2001; Nelson 2002) and also was undertaken for personal development reasons, contributing to the fulfilment of human and societal potential (Watts 1986; Nelson 2002).

Underpinning the nature and characteristics of the sector at the turn of the Century was a history of reform commencing in the mid-1880's. Tracing the waves of transformation to the sector is particularly insightful to understanding the emergence of a hierarchy among institutions and how across time, key decisions created the grounds for the introduction of market forces. For these reasons, a brief history is outlined next.

A brief history of reform in Australian higher education

The history of Australian higher education is marked by a number of critical turning points. Drawing from the literature (Watts 1986; Dawkins 1988; Report of the Task Force on Amalgamations in Higher Education 1989; Graetz & McAllister 1988; Ramsey 1988; Karmel 1989; Smart 1992; Symes 1996; Aitkin 1997; Haynes 1997; Marginson 1997a, 1998; Patterson 1997; Sharpham 1997; DETYA 1998; Nelson 2003), a brief summary of the history of Australian higher education follows. …


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