Where are the student protests in the 2000s?

The Government’s plan to reduce university funding by $2 billion has been met by criticism from the universities themselves and academics. But wherefore art thou, student protesters?

One of the headiest moments of my undergrad days in the 90s was marching down Macquarie Street peacefully amongst fellow students – to the beat of makeshift percussion instruments, holding up signs and burning effigies of Amanda Vanstone (every righteous hero needs a villain and she was the face of increased HECS fees). I’m getting all nostalgic…

Now as a postgrad who still goes on campus on occasion, I can tell you there is almost radio silence amongst the stakeholders who will be amongst those who will feel the most pain from the Gonski reforms. In April a protest held at the University of NSW attracted only small crowds. The participants in the pics look older too – where were the freshfaced undergrads? (At Roundhouse? Coogee Bay Hotel?)

One can only hope the students are planning a viral attack, Kony-style. More likely they are too busy with things like working part-time jobs to pay for living expenses. Protesting is just not a priority right now.

The rallying cries of student protesters ignite political passions and can change policies, even governments. And on that note, perhaps the funding cuts, compared to say overthrowing the Egyptian government, is not a big enough issue to get hot and bothered about.

Certainly University Australia’s polite TV ads lack the passion needed to change stubborn political minds whose own election ad campaigns have previously unabashedly bordered on defamation. At best, the ads leave me with the impression that Uni’s are really, really disappointed.

As Winston Churchill once said, if you’re not a socialist at the age of twenty you have no heart. If you’re not a capitalist by the time you’re thirty you have no brain.

Using some of the information my brain has absorbed from my expensive MBA education, my recommendation is for unis to explore alternative funding options such as public private partnerships (PPPs) and investment from superannuation funds via infrastructure funds or direct investment into university infrastructure.

PPPs have proven to be useful solutions for funding public infrastructure such as roads (where traffic forecasts have been realistic), transport, hospitals and university research laboratories. The PPP model, for example, could be used to fund a cutting edge platform for online learning, to allow Australian universities to compete on the international level. (The second biggest contributor to uni funding, after the government, is the full-fee paying international student market, to the tune of around $5bn for all Aussie unis, or in the case of UNSW around 30% of revenue. International students represent a revenue stream that needs to be protected and nurtured.)

Private sector collaborations on projects such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) platforms have already been successfully executed overseas, such as venture capital firm Sequoia Capital funding the Stanford Engineering Everywhere pilot program.

Furthermore the PPP model can be applied to fund research, as demonstrated by the European Commission, who launched three PPPs in 2009 to tackle the consequences of the global economic downturn. The PPPs fund research and innovation in three key industrial sectors – manufacturing, construction and automotive.

Another source of funding is superannuation. A larger proportion of Australia’s $1.5 trillion superannuation funds could be invested in public infrastructure assets such as university buildings and facilities, and potentially research assets as well. Already between 5 and 10 per cent of superannuation funds are allocated to various forms of infrastructure. One commentator argues that to meet Australia’s needs and to increase productivity, this allocation should increase to 15 per cent . While I’d like to see Sydney’s woeful public transport addressed as a priority, surely some of this super money can also be invested in university infrastructure.

To implement these alternative funding mechanisms unis of course need to collaborate with the private sector. Fund managers and investment banks can work with the universities to structure deals so that university infrastructure becomes an increasingly attractive asset class for the institutional investors including superannuation funds. The institutional investor market can also extend to overseas markets.

Perhaps alumni from the likes of Macquarie Bank could provide some of these finance and consultancy services pro bono. Hey, if the University of Sydney can fundraise $300 million over five years, anything’s possible.

Tapping into these constant, long-term revenue sources can assure a university’s financial sustainability. The university assets can provide low-risk returns from activities such as commercialisation of research, rent from long-term leases and ancillary campus services.

The key risk with applying these alternative funding models is that unis are exposing themselves even more to the vagaries of the market – in simplistic terms, they might be forced to favour commercial interests over social good in their budget decisions.

Having such close ties to the private sector might raise suspicions of tainted research and teaching. Further pressure might be placed on universities to reduce the funding for or close arts-based faculties that suffer from poor financial performance. (I did Media/Law as an undergrad and have to say the critical analysis I learned from artsy courses has served me well throughout my career, not to mention that the ability to talk like David Stratton about movies – thanks Cinema Studies – is handy for party conversation. Closing the Arts faculty is not the solution, people.)

Frameworks such as the UN Principles for Responsible Investment could provide guidance to mitigate capitalist greed; investors and financiers can go one step further than voluntary commitment to the UNPRI, and can be contractually bound to consider environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, including ethics, in their investment and financial management of university assets, and perform to appropriate metrics.

Part of universities’ risk mitigation would be to learn from the mistakes of the failed Melbourne University Private (MUP), a spinoff founded by the University of Melbourne.

Consider this blog post a form of protest. Polite, considered, somewhat based on business logic (I am over 30 now), yet hopefully still impassioned.

Caroline Regidor
BY Caroline Regidor ON 27 May 2013
Caroline Regidor is managing director of First Degree PR. Caroline has over a decade's experience working within the media industry and providing comms advice to leading corporates such as the Commonwealth Bank, Colonial First State, Baulderstone (part of the Lend Lease Group) and Gadens Lawyers.