Australian quality spread too thinly

August 18, 2006

Education Minister claims only 12 universities are needed to boost achievement, reports Geoff Maslen.

Australia needs only 12 public comprehensive universities instead of the current 37, according to Julie Bishop, the federal Education Minister.

In a lengthy address to the Curtin Institute in Perth last month, Ms Bishop called for greater diversity and fewer institutions. She said there was obviously a place for fully comprehensive, generic universities that met the skills needs of the nation and of their regions across a broad range of disciplines. But only a dozen such institutions were needed, particularly in the major metropolitan cities and some distinct regions.

Reforms imposed by the Labor Government in the 1980s had forced a range of different education institutions into a "one-size-fits-all mould" of multidisciplinary, comprehensive, research- led universities, Ms Bishop said.

She said that Australia did not have the population or sufficient high-quality academic staff to maintain 37 comprehensive public universities that all undertake teaching, scholarship and research across a broad range of disciplines.

"The sector must stop trying to be all things to all students," she said.

"Many countries enjoy a diverse higher education system (and) the most obvious example is the US, where a system of stratified universities and colleges provides a wide range of two and four-year qualifications to a very diverse student body." Continental Europe enjoyed an even more varied system, she said.

Most of Australia's universities offer more than 40 fields of education, all offer business and management while studies in human society and behavioural science are offered at 36 universities.

"As a result of this relentless pursuit of sameness, we miss some of the great heights of our international competitors," Ms Bishop said. "We have no Harvard University or Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Australia. We also lack many of the specialised high-quality education institutions that exist with fewer resources in the more diverse systems."

But she said that universities would not be forced into mergers. Any "marriages" would be voluntary, and she wanted to encourage universities to look to the future and determine which direction to take - to merge or to reform.

"Standing still is unlikely to be an option," Ms Bishop said. "There is great obvious potential for diversity in Australia, and I recognise that some universities are taking steps in that direction."

She said the challenge for the sector was how to achieve greater diversity, based on individual strengths that were relevant to the economic growth of their regions and in the best interests of their students.

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