Trends in HE: Pioneers of urban frontier find kinship close to home

September 20, 2002

A sense of unity will enable new-generation universities to be loud and proud, says Janice Reid

Around the world, new universities are feeling the challenges of a changing global economy and decreased funding. This is particularly acute in Australia, where investment in higher education continues to wane against Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development comparators. The experience of universities founded there since 1970 is shared by similar institutions in many countries.

They hold the promise of the future economic and social development of their regions. Simultaneously, they face the challenge to overcome the competitive advantages, relative wealth and political relationships that older institutions have built up over time. The common aim of "new-generation" universities is to encourage decision-makers and funding bodies to address the characteristics that constrain them in their roles of educating well-defined communities, while generating knowledge anchored in contemporary social problems, economic questions and technological change.

An OECD study by Ellen Hazelkorn affirms that once-benign national educational systems are now competitive marketplaces. Newer universities experience all the disadvantages of starting late from a low base where institutional funding has not taken adequate account of historic inequities. Government policy and strategies favour established institutions and often militate against the building of a broad and robust research base.

Participants in the study felt that policy instruments failed to recognise the needs of new-generation universities. They felt excluded from the relationship built up over time between policy-makers and established universities.

Newer universities are increasingly pursuing strategies that build strengths and carve niches. In research, collaboration - with each other, with industry and with communities - is the key to long-term research strength. Scholarly contributions are especially evident in several professions and service industries at the heart of advanced knowledge-based societies: health, teacher education, built environment, business and management, and information technology are just some of these. They develop knowledge and so enhance quality assurance and currency in the professions.

Michael Gibbons, secretary-general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, has argued that new universities are well placed to take a lead in the development of "socially robust" knowledge at the intersection of the boundaries of conventional disciplines, whether in teaching or research. Younger universities can more easily grapple with the change of ethos this broader view of knowledge requires. They have a lower investment in traditional paradigms of inquiry than older universities, and their community engagement makes it easier for them to include a wide range of voices and modes of inquiry.

There is a growing expectation that public policy for higher education, where a commitment to intellectual experiment and exploration has long been fundamental, should be responsive to new and diverse institutions that are still developing their identities and roles. New universities, of course, are not all the same. They are characterised by different origins, missions and strengths. In a sector full of well-defended traditions, relative youth would seem the obvious starting point for kinship, but the real glue between newer universities is shared views about the ways they can best serve contemporary societies. Many newer universities attract a majority of first-generation students and those from low socioeconomic groups, are deeply engaged in local and regional communities and, while seeing research activity as fundamental, focus on selected areas of strength and often involve participants beyond their walls. Indeed, many were established to serve the growing urban frontier around large cities or had their roots in colleges and polytechnics in poorer areas.

The first international conference of young universities was held in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, earlier this summer, and was attended by 35 university leaders from nine countries. It explored common experience, aspirations, challenges and concerns.

The conference, hosted by the University of Western Sydney and co-sponsored by the Association of Commonwealth Universities and the Institutional Management Program of the OECD, was particularly timely for Australian participants. It coincided with the early stages of a national review of higher education that is expected to recommend significant policy and funding changes by the end of 2002. Brendan Nelson, the minister for education, science and training, released the second of the federal government's key discussion papers on reform in the sector at the conference.

A New Generations Universities Network was formed to strengthen the voice of younger institutions and to exchange and promote common goals for higher education. The network is an affiliation of those new universities represented from Australia, New Zealand and Ireland. The conference resolved to reconvene in British Columbia, Canada, in 2004.

The Australian universities represented have agreed in the context of the national review, which has raised issues such as deregulation, student fees and differentiation into research and teaching institutions as points of debate, to:

  • Support the creative transformation of an educated nation that fosters diversity, engagement and emerging fields of national and regional significance
  • Contribute to Australia's broader economic, social and cultural agendas
  • Support the development and diversity and centres of excellence in teaching and research that are defined by quality and strength
  • Promote a higher education system that is engaged with the community and is responsive to it in a changing world
  • Ensure that high-quality teaching and research together form part of the mission of universities
  • Actively pursue public and private investment in the knowledge economy
  • Work to ensure that all students have a comprehensive and comparable experience of higher education
  • Without bias of any kind, endorse the recruitment and retention of students with the ability and motivation to benefit from higher education
  • Lead the higher education sector in ways that do not reinforce institutional age and attributed prestige as driving factors in the allocation of resources.

This is the challenge and the opportunity for new-generation universities and national systems of higher education into the future.

Janice Reid is vice-chancellor of the University of Western Sydney.

Please see Higher education trends 2002  in the Statistics section for charts and tables giving a comprehensive picture of Britain's higher education system and its evolution over two decades.

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