What the people want: community attitudes to higher education revealed

New findings show Australians value and support the role universities play in society, want open access to a university place for domestic students and want the next government to review post-secondary education.


Photo: Gavin Blue Photography

Nearly three-quarters of Australians say a university education improves career prospects and nine out of 10 want tertiary education to be constantly updated to meet changing workforce needs, according to a new survey.

The findings of research commissioned by UNSW Sydney also show nearly 80% of respondents want the next federal government to review the tertiary education system comprising vocational training colleges, such as TAFEs, and universities.

That figure rises to over 86% for those aged 18-34 years, known as the Millennial generation, as higher education policies are coming under the spotlight in the lead up to the looming federal election. And more people than not support the government-directed formal review underway into freedom of speech at universities.

“Some of the most interesting findings relate to people’s attitudes to the funding of universities, the role they play and the importance of domestic access to a university education,” said Professor Merlin Crossley, UNSW Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Academic.

“The research shows that the majority of people do not support the idea of the government capping or limiting university places for Australian students,” he said. “And while most want the government to help universities to expand, most actually don’t want the government to fund universities entirely from taxes.


Professor Merlin Crossley, UNSW Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Academic

“At present universities are funded by a mixture of government support from domestic and international student fees, government and industry research grants, and philanthropy. It seems that the idea of balancing taxes and user-pays fees via income contingent loans is here to stay.”

Strikingly, one of the stand out results was that 91% agree that the mix of teaching and research conducted at universities improves the quality of education and leads to important health and technological advances. This resonates with the view that the Australian electorate does strongly support efforts for Australia to be a world leader in research as well in as in teaching.

The findings recognise the importance of universities and the role they play in society through the provision of knowledge, skills and research, and confirm that the population is interested and does care about our universities. Other key findings:

  • 47% want the government to intervene and set university entry levels for courses, such as teaching, verses 38% who want universities to set their own limits (15% don’t know).

  • Universities are recognised as conducting the majority of the nation’s research compared to private companies and institutions, and government institutions; this is especially so for the millennial generation but not by those aged over 65 years who think private organisations do the most research work.

  • 53% of people in the study have completed or are completing a bachelor’s or higher degree at university, 30% have completed or are completing a TAFE or other non-university qualification, and 17% completed or were doing high school.

“Australia is a world leader in terms of providing education for international students. I think our forefathers would have been very pleased had they known Australia would emerge as an intellectual capital in the 21st century, making a huge contribution to global education. It is impressive that universities not only help maintain the skilled workforces of the future but also contribute to the key health and technological breakthroughs we all benefit from,” Professor Crossley said.

“Given government cuts to investments in university research and education funding, universities such as ours are repeatedly forced to seek alternative sources of revenue to support the full costs of our research, and this study highlights public support for our approach and the role we play in society.”

UNSW supports and welcomes national efforts to understand and improve tertiary education via debates and reviews and exploring new mechanisms to realise the goal of ‘life-long learning’ including offering bite-sized degrees, on-demand courses and online-only programs. It is estimated that the world will have more than a billion more children of school age by 2030 and these children will benefit from ongoing education from universities with global reach such as UNSW.

Excerpts from study

Do you agree or disagree that ongoing university education is vital for workers in updating their skills or advancing their careers?

  Total Female Male 18-34 35-50 51-65 65+
Strongly agree 28.7% 31.4% 25.6% 44.6% 28.6% 17.8% 20.1%
Agree 38.4% 34.9% 42.5% 35.4% 36.8% 39.5% 45%
Disagree 22% 20.6% 23.5% 4.6% 26.4% 31.6% 27%
Strongly disagree 7.2% 8.4% 5.8% 14.6% 4.4% 5.5% 2.6%
Unsure/don't know 3.7% 4.7% 2.7% 0.7% 3.8% 5.5% 5.3%


  High school Diploma/certificate Bachelors
Strongly agree 15.8% 28.5% 33%
Agree 44.1% 33.2% 39.7%
Disagree 24.3% 25.9% 18.9%
Strongly disagree 13% 4.4% 6.7%
Unsure/don't know 2.8% 7.9% 1.6%


Universities not only teach but do research. Do you agree or disagree that this mix of teaching and research improves the quality of education and leads to important health and technological advances?

  Total Female Male 18-34 35-50 51-65 65+
Strongly agree 66.1% 66.3% 65.8% 85.4% 61.6% 60% 52.9%
Agree 24.9% 22.9% 27.2% 6.8% 27% 32.5% 38.6%
Disagree 4% 5% 2.9% 0.7% 5.7% 2.7% 7.4%
Strongly disagree 0.8% 0.2% 1.4% 0.7% 1.3% 0.4% 0.5%
Unsure/don't know 4.2% 5.6% 2.7% 6.4% 4.4% 4.3% 0.5%


  High school Diploma/certificate Bachelors
Strongly agree 44.6% 65.6% 73.2%
Agree 44.6% 28.4% 16.6%
Disagree 4% 2.5% 4.9%
Strongly disagree 1.7% 0.3% 0.9%
Unsure/don't know 5.1% 3.2% 4.4%