What do UK universities have to learn from Australia (and vice versa)?

Sir Keith Burnett returns from Australia with some astute observations on two far-from-perfect higher education systems

April 17, 2017
Child with megaphone at Sydney Opera House
Source: Getty

I left Shanghai at 8pm to fly to Sydney, Australia. In the night, I was woken by persistent turbulence and struck up a conversation with the cabin steward.

Carl was my idea of an Australian. He had an easy charm and we talked about work, family and our countries. When I mentioned I worked for a university, his immediate comment was just how important international students were to Australia. It made me sigh to think what the same discussion would have been on the way to Britain.

Despite the latest ComRes survey showing overwhelming public support for international students, I don't think that even relatively well-informed Brits are aware of the extent of the impact of international students on their towns and cities. 

Carl, like me, had two grown-up children, a daughter and son. One was at university, the other doing an apprenticeship. He described how important skills were to Australia, and the great mistake of neglecting them. Now the country was having to import people with technical qualifications, so a need to welcome foreigners and strengthening vocational education went hand in hand. 

A day or so later, I caught up with my old colleague and friend from the University of Oxford, Michael Spence, now vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney. Michael was about to leave on a trade mission to India with the Australian prime minister, and I was in little doubt of the importance of international students to him. Sydney has 37 per cent international students, many from China, and many home students are the children of first-generation immigrants.

He told me that Brexit and Trump had made the Indian subcontinent much more open to Australian universities. 

But Michael is the last person to think of international students only as a source of revenue. He worries about the sacrifices made by families overseas to give chances to their children, and the outcomes in society for graduates from recent immigrant communities. And the situation is even worse for Australia's Aboriginal peoples – who comprise just 3 per cent of its population overall, but nearly 30 per cent of its prison inmates.

Urban versus rural; elites versus populist conservatism. It was all too familiar. Nothing he said gave me the impression of an Aussie paradise.  

And at the University of Melbourne we met people dedicated to the future of communities that had not benefited from the growing affluence of the cities. These are often communities where agriculture dominates their lives and finance, where underachievement in schools blights their children’s futures. Melbourne’s ideas of how to use insights from academia to bring innovation and skills to these groups was inspirational.

This is demanding work, putting engagement at the heart of the university’s strategy, and it has been led from the front by its vice-chancellor, Glyn Davis. 

It isn't hard to see the appeal of studying in Australia to young people around the world. It was grating to be reminded regularly of how perceptions of the UK are arguably fuelling a boom in overseas study Down Under, although there are signs of optimism that at last sense may be dawning. 

While in Sydney, I spoke to one of our alumni whose work in high-tech information technology is revolutionising fund management. Jim is British by birth but has lived and breathed Sydney since he graduated.

So I asked this decidedly cool tech innovator what we should be teaching our students now. His answer might surprise: avoid the fashionable and the contemporary, he said. The thing that had persisted in his career was the mathematics he had been taught at the Hicks building in Sheffield. It was hard work that lasted, not the unpredictable novelty of the latest app or an intoxication with the magic of a new product. 


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And we in the UK do have advantages, too. In an Australian university that teaches a large number of expensive subjects and does research, it is the British university funding system that is envied. Why? Because of QR – direct funding to institutions depending on the quality of research. Australian universities do not have this – or, to be accurate, they have a very small supplement of a general kind.

Australian universities have to work very hard indeed to support the scholarship of their institutions. They may have more international students, but you could argue that they really need them to compensate for less direct funding for scholarship.

The UK universities that are doing best are those that have high numbers of international students and QR for their research. They are driving innovation and capability and can afford expensive STEM subjects with the kind of costly facilities and equipment these demand. Take away any one element of this business mix, and institutions will struggle. Take away both, and you will cause lasting and possibly irreparable damage to a system of higher education that is the envy of the world – not by right, but by effort, by talent, by reputation and resource. 

Looking back from a distance can enable you to see your strengths as well as your vulnerabilities.

The truth is that neither the UK nor Australia has yet made a perfect university system, and we each have genuine threats to address and possibilities to share. Australian and British universities were not created by magic. They were made, and making them took talent, effort and money.

Greatness is not inherent; it has to be sustained.

Sir Keith Burnett is vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield

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