Q & A with Julia Horne and Matthew A.M. Thomas, editors of Australian Universities

Julia Horne is Professor of History at the University of Sydney. She works on the history and politics of Australian higher education, and her publications include Sydney: The Making of a Public University (Miegunyah Press, 2012, co-authored with Geoffrey Sherington) and Preserving the Past: The University of Sydney and the Unified National System of Higher Education 1987–96 (Melbourne University Publishing, 2017, co-authored with Stephen Garton).

Matthew A.M. Thomas is currently a Senior Lecturer in International and Comparative Education at the University of Glasgow, though much of this project was completed whilst holding his position as an Associate Professor of  Comparative Education and Sociology of Education at the University of Sydney. His research examines educational policies, pedagogical practices, and teacher and higher education. Most recently, Matthew is the co-editor of Examining Teach for All (Routledge, 2021) and the Handbook of Theory in Comparative and International Education (Bloomsbury, 2021).

Two separate photographs of authors Julia Horne and Matthew A.M. Thomas


What prompted you both to write this book?

For many of us, the period of 202022 was a time of depression and exhaustion about the future of Australia’s public universities, with not much positive conversation about their worth and possibilities. We wanted to restart the conversation and see where it led, to examine bold ideas for the future of Australian universities. Little did we know that the new Labor government also wanted to ignite the conversation and, in its first 12 months, would establish a University Accord Committee to recommend "bold ideas" to sustain universities for the next few decades. What serendipity!

What were your own personal experiences of tertiary education in Australia?

We both had very different experiences. Julia benefited under the Whitlam legacy of fee-free education, and Matthew first experienced tertiary education in Australia as an academic and teacher educator. For both of us, we went to universities that were much smaller than Australian universities now, which are some of the biggest in the world. We’re also both interested in student access as a question of social justice, and we each have a deep commitment to enhancing educational equity, which probably comes from our experiences as university students.

You collaborated with a number of other scholars and experts on Australian Universities. Could you describe the writing and editorial process?

It was so much fun! The project is based on a seminar series, known as the History of University Life, that has been running for more than a decade. During the COVID-19 pandemic we pivoted’ to a seven-part online webinar series. Each hour-long webinar was moderated by one of us and featured 24 individuals speaking about their research, practice, and personal experiences in higher education. The webinars were recorded and are still available on Vimeo and YouTube.

While the webinar series was exceptionally well-received and garnered many views and comments, we felt there was more to be done to ensure we could bring this conversation to others in Australia and beyond.

So we approached many of the individuals featured in the webinar series, as well as other people working in/on higher education, and invited them to contribute a conversation-style chapter for this book. Once our central topics and authors were confirmed, we brought different groups of authors together to collectively discuss how they were planning to approach their chapter, and to receive brief feedback from others involved in the project. This also helped to build a small community within and around the book; while some authors knew each other quite well, others were relative newcomers to the conversation.

As editors, we then reviewed all chapters, offered some constructive comments, and returned the chapters to the original authors for revision. After they submitted a revised version, each chapter was blind reviewed to further enhance the quality of the overall volume and to help ensure the chapters collectively touched on the key issues facing university life in Australia. Final reviews by us as editors were then conducted and the full volume was submitted to the wonderful team at Sydney University Press.

Everyone was so engaged with the primary objective of the book – to be bold!

If you had to single out the most pressing issue facing Australian universities in 2023, what would it be?

How to address access and equity. We have a number of essays on continuing inequalities in higher education which address really important questions. Whitlam’s university reforms established general equity principles, including the support of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to attend universities. There have been improvements, sure, but fifty years on there is much work to be done. The majority of universities have still not reached equity targets established in the 1990s and revised in the 2000s. In sum, progress is too slow.

What did you find surprising during your research for Australian Universities?

One thing that was both very surprising and perhaps not surprising at all was the history of higher education reform, and the extent to which various Australian governments and policies were willing to embrace bold and constructive change. There are some interesting examples in the book that go back to the Curtin-Chifley university reforms of the 1940s. But there have also been short-sighted changes. In many instances the book tells a story about how universities and the higher education system in general have been plagued by short-term "fixes" and small initiatives that merely scratch the surface of the fundamental questions and issues facing the Australian public: Who are we? What do we value? Who do we want to become?

What advice would you give prospective students and academic staff ahead of applying for a position at a university?

First, recognise that there are a wide range of academic programs offered across Australia’s diverse institutions. Do as much research as possible to understand whether the specific program, department, and university to which you are applying is a good fit. Where possible, consult both external and internal sources; students and staff on the "inside" of a program, department, and institution sometimes have the best insights into its strengths and weaknesses.

Second, and relatedly, consider how you’re wired and what makes you happy. In most academic circles, research-intensive positions are presumed to be the pinnacle of university life, but conducting research is often an individual endeavour with long timelines between commencing and finishing a research project. Not everyone is wired to enjoy solitary work, or to pursue extended projects that may last months or, more likely, years. For people who are wired differently but still want to work in academia, it may be worth considering teaching-focused or other administrative positions in higher education. While these types of positions are commonly not accorded the same prestige in higher education institutions, we firmly believe they play an integral role within these institutions and make enduring contributions to the public good that is (hopefully) offered by universities.


Australian Universities is out now. Order your copy here.