Australian public sees research-teaching mix as vital, survey shows

Community attitudes questionnaire also finds that Australians want caps on international students but not domestic students

February 25, 2019

Australians overwhelmingly support the Humboldtian model of higher education, believing that the combination of teaching and research benefits both domains, according to a survey.

Ninety-one per cent of those questioned either agreed or strongly agreed that the mixture of teaching and research improved the quality of education while enabling important advances in health and technology. Five per cent disagreed while 4 per cent offered no opinion.

The question was one of 12 posed in a telephone survey of community attitudes to higher education, commissioned by UNSW Sydney and undertaken by Melbourne pollsters uCommunications.

The response suggests that there is a lack of community appetite for teaching-only universities, which are considered a likely recommendation of the current review of Australia’s higher education provider category standards.

Support for the Humboldtian model proved strongest among young Australians, with 84 per cent strongly advocating the combination of teaching and research and just 1 per cent saying that it provided no benefits.

The survey also revealed a strong awareness of universities’ contribution to research efforts, particularly among higher education graduates and people aged under 35. It also unearthed the widespread opposition to free higher education, with most respondents – among those who offered opinions – saying that they did not believe the government should fund universities entirely from tax revenue.

“It seems that the idea of balancing taxes and user-pays fees – via income-contingent loans – is here to stay,” said UNSW deputy vice-chancellor Merlin Crossley.

Young respondents felt differently, however, with 54 per cent saying universities should be entirely publicly funded. Four out of five young interviewees also supported uncapped funding for university places.

Overall, three quarters of respondents backed a demand-driven university system – good news for the Labor opposition, which has vowed to remove the cap on funding for university places if it wins the federal election expected in May.

Just less than 80 per cent of survey respondents supported a review of the entire post-secondary education system, implicitly endorsing another Labor policy.

The survey also revealed considerable appetite for a formal review of free speech in Australian universities – a welcome result for the governing Coalition, which commissioned exactly such a review last November.

Support for a free speech review was strongest among the young, with almost two-thirds of respondents younger than 35 believing that it was warranted and 30 per cent that it was unnecessary.

The survey also revealed support for a cap on international student numbers, with 54 per cent saying the government should limit foreign enrolments and just 36 per cent disagreeing. Enthusiasm for government intervention again proved strongest among the young, while one in two university graduates also said that international enrolments should be capped.

The response could reflect community angst about the impact of international students – who represent around 29 per cent of Australia’s higher education students and almost 2 per cent of the national population – on infrastructure and housing prices.

It also puts universities in a difficult position, because of the clear community views that universities must maintain their research – much of it funded by foreign tuition fees – and that the government should not fully bankroll their activities.

“Given government cuts to 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,” Professor Crossley said.

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