‘Fantasy’ model of top-ranking university has had its day – v-c

Sydney’s Michael Spence says increasing competition, growing costs and changing expectations mean institutions need to change tack

August 13, 2019
Michael Spence speaks at the World Academic Summit

The “fantasy” university idealised by global rankings has had its day, and Australia has produced a model for the university of the future, according to a leading vice-chancellor.

University of Sydney leader Michael Spence said many academics harboured a “deep nostalgia” for the “idealised hypostasis of a university” that was “not sustainable and probably not desirable”.

“If you’re among the world’s top 20 ranked universities – average age 351 years, average endowment about $35 billion [£29 billion] – you can keep the fantasy going,” Dr Spence told the Times Higher Education Australia Universities Forum.

But this “traditional dream” was not sustainable because of increasing competition, escalating research costs, changing social expectations and “because, quite frankly, the public isn’t prepared to put its hand in its pocket the way it was once prepared to”.

“We were engaged in conversations about questions that interested us…teaching students that fit our particular model of what the university student might be,” Dr Spence said.

“Australian universities have discovered that the key to sustainability, in both research and education, is to turn outwards. In that sense, universities in many other parts of the world could have quite a lot to learn from us.”

He said universities needed to cultivate research that asked “not just the questions that academics are asking one another, but the questions in which our community is interested”.

In education, universities needed to admit students from all over the world, offer them “pedagogically meaningful” internships and embrace micro-credentials geared for lifelong learning.

“This whole attitude shift that’s happened here in Australia [is something] that universities in systems like the UK are going to have to think about,” he said. “The Australian model has a lot to teach them.”

Advance details of THE’s 2020 World University Rankings, to be released on 11 September, suggest Australia is on the right track. Overall, the country’s universities have logged improvements in all 13 metrics underpinning the rankings - particularly citations and research and teaching reputation.

Previewing the results, THE chief knowledge officer Phil Baty said Australian universities had improved their rankings scores by 1.75 points on average. Three more universities than last year had ranked within the top 400, he indicated.

“It has been a fantastic year for Australia,” Mr Baty told the forum. “There’s some really significant improvements, not for everybody, but several universities have made really strong progress.”

New Zealand universities have also improved, with scores increasing in nine of the 13 metrics and average institutional tallies rising 0.8 points.

Dr Spence said that in the idealised university, undergraduates were domestic students drawn from the “kind of worthy poor who are incredibly well educated by the secondary system”. Graduate students were “part of an international global elite that speaks fluent English and has extraordinary transferable skills”.

“All of this is a public good that the public should pay very generously for. Philanthropists should give money as well, preferably by sending a cheque so you never have to encounter them.”

He said the death of such a vision should be cause for celebration.

“A university turned outwards, that’s engaged in multidisciplinary research, that is actively collaborating with industry and civil society, where students are drawn from around the world and [educated] for difference at scale – that’s a much more exciting thing to be a part of.”


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