'Funny you should ask for that'

Higher education as a market

Stuart Macintyre

Patterns of loss

In the early 1970s I went to the United Kingdom to pursue postgraduate studies. My time at Cambridge was happier than that of Manning Clark at Oxford in the 1930s, but there was one source of minor irritation. The local shopkeepers exhibited a combination of servility towards some of their customers and summary contempt for others. Mr Flack, the newsagent, was perhaps the stingiest. At that time one of the London newspapers offered a fifty per cent refund for subscribers, and I had mislaid the previous month's receipt. Mr Flack was prepared to issue me with a new one but it would cost me twopence for his time and his stationery.

If the English achieved renown as a nation of shopkeepers, they had slipped some way by the era of the Three-Day Week. My wife sought a new seal for the pressure cooker with which we made New Zealand neck chops palatable, but no shop seemed to have one in stock. 'Funny you should ask for that', one man told her, 'for we get a lot of requests for pressure cooker parts, but we don't stock them - you see, there's no demand'. As with English shopkeepers and rubber rings, so with Australian universities and various fields of study: those who want to study a language, classics, philosophy, even history and literature, mathematics, physics and chemistry are told they are no longer taught because there is no demand for them. As the number of students in higher education increases, the proportion engaged in these core disciplines of the sciences, social sciences and humanities decreases.

Enrolments in the core sciences are falling both relatively and absolutely. While the number of Bachelor of Science students increased from 40,254 in 1989 to 67,327 in 2000, the number studying mathematics, physics and chemistry all fell. There were 7956 equivalent full-time students of mathematics in 1989, 6900 in 2000; 4717 equivalent full-time students of chemistry in 1989, 4137 in 2000; 2893 in physics in 1989, and 2008 in 2000. The areas of greatest enrolment and fastest growth are in computer science and the biological sciences.1 These disciplines attract students because of their clear vocational utility, and they attract research funding because of their industrial utility. Presented with such opportunities, universities are reconfiguring their science faculties, rebadging their degrees and shifting their research effort.

The implications have been explored in a recent survey of the mathematical sciences in Australia. Between 1995 and 1999 it is estimated that there was a 26 per cent decline in the number of mathematicians working in Australian universities. Some of our ablest mathematicians are leaving Australia to pursue their careers, and some of our ablest undergraduates are choosing other fields of study: ten years ago there were 250 honours graduates in mathematics; now there are 150. With falling numbers of mathematics graduates going into the schools, the number of Year 12 students who take advanced mathematics also falls.2

A similar pattern is apparent in the country's Arts faculties. In 1998 there were 3779 equivalent full-time students of philosophy in Australian universities. Last year there were 3628.3 They are enrolled in sixteen universities, for philosophy is taught in only one of the newer universities that were established in the 1980s. That university is Charles Sturt, which has by far the largest enrolment, 560 equivalent full-time students, most of them police trainees who study applied ethics. The arrangement illustrates the impact of vocational training on even the most recondite of disciplines. It has benefits for both the police and philosophy, but the employment of ethicists does little for other branches of philosophy. Charles Sturt University also supports the largest philosophy department, with 14 academics. In 1998 there were 145 philosophers teaching