In pursuit of healthy minds

Watching the Matildas continuing to excel this week was heartwarming. It reminded me that Australia’s faith in sport, in excellence and effort, and in health, is good for us all.

Some worry that we love sport too much. But an implicit belief in physical activity is no bad thing, provided it is kept in balance.

And the Roman poet Juvenal reminded us to aim for mens sana in corpore sano – a healthy mind, in a healthy body.

The O’Kane review is the latest exhortation to ensure that Australia invests in the health of the mind. It is a passionate declaration that committing to knowledge will be good for individuals, and good for society. If done properly, it will drive social cohesion and sovereign capability.

The vision is grand – this is gym membership for all Australians.

This will make us stronger individually, and as a nation. It will make economic sense, because savings will flow. Well-educated societies look after themselves. The costs spent on welfare, health, and even the costs of fighting crime diminish. Cohesive societies achieve great things.

I say ‘the latest’ call to invest in knowledge, because this is not the first time we have seen declarations of faith in education. We have seen the Bradley review into universities, the Cutler review into the innovation system, and the Gonski review of schools. Cynics remind us that in each case the visions were large, but the cheques were small.

Everyone is asking whether this will happen again. Will the Minister step up and fund the initiatives, or will he declare, job done, lock in a few of the surveillance and regulatory matters that cost little (except for bureaucratic pain for the sector) and move on?

Or will he commit to funding the big ticket items – more Commonwealth Supported Places, the real costs of research, and a reorganisation to ensure that university and vocational education are managed seamlessly?

When it comes to funding gyms, the problem is so much easier. It so happens that many people buy annual gym memberships but do not use them. Thus the business model of gyms is relatively simple. Many gyms are well-staffed and well-equipped. With education it is different. One cannot play the opposite trick – provide access to all, support staffing and promise all the new equipment, while charging no one for membership. It is hardly surprising that some people are cynical.

But I am optimistic because I feel that Australia is increasingly committed to mens sana in corpore sano. Nearly a million Australians are studying at our universities today. This is a massive achievement.

What’s more, Australia is the destination of choice (tied with Canada) for international students. Who would have thought we would emerge as the intellectual capital of the world. And we are in the Asian time zone, a place where investment in knowledge sits in ones DNA.

The Accord rightly explains that to cater for everyone, we need to develop both university and vocational education. To me the reason this hasn’t happened is simple. It is not just snobbery – Australians don’t like snobbery. It is because vocational education is run by the States and universities (though legally State bodies) are run by who pays the piper, the Feds. If the proposed Australian Tertiary Education Commission (ATEC) can find a way of harmonising these approaches then perhaps we can develop a system that welcomes and includes all Australians, with their different talents and aspirations.

And perhaps the ATEC can enact the other critical recommendation in the review – the proper funding of research. Because to do so would free our universities from having to precariously support research via international student fees, and to forever seek more, more, more foreign students, to cover the increasing costs of remaining competitive in research that underpins our prosperity, our health, and our very security as a nation.

Or perhaps the Minister will just set up a few policing bodies and move on. This would be a shame because one can never regulate oneself to excellence or even to security. Investing in the mind is what is important. Regulatory oversight to maintain minimum standards, seldom does much beyond embedding those low standards.

The world is watching. Do we have a Minister who is going to succeed in investing in education, expanding Commonwealth Supported Places and covering the real costs of research, or is this all just theatre?

I don’t know but I do know that we will soon find out. I am optimistic. I think the Matildas will continue to play hard and win, and I also think it is possible that move in the right direction and remain competitive in the Asian century. I hope that, as we did with the Medical Research Future Fund, we see a big, and tangible commitment soon. It is possible.

Professor Merlin Crossley is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic Quality) at the University of NSW.



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