Australian universities ‘should divide up research specialisms’

Institutions Down Under do not have the resources to lead the world across the board, says former vice-chancellor

June 3, 2019
Source: Getty

Australian universities need to choose research areas to specialise in rather than trying to lead the world in every field, a former vice-chancellor has argued.

Stephen Parker, who led the University of Canberra between 2007 and 2016, said that Australian institutions lacked the resources to compete across the board with the US, Europe, China and emerging economies like India – and that they were “setting themselves up for pain and confusion” if this was the path that they chose.

The 18 May election, in which a Labor opposition planning to increase research spending was defeated, had made universities’ approach even more untenable. “We can’t compete in a global arms race for world rankings,” said Professor Parker, now education sector leader with consultants KPMG Australia.

“We need to rethink it or else we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment. You can only have 100 in the top 100.”

Professor Parker said Australian higher education’s operating model had been premised on growth. But costs were outstripping revenue, funding from the re-elected Coalition government would barely keep pace with population growth, and earnings from international students appeared increasingly unreliable.

He said universities would have to make “painful decisions” about the activities they should drop, and advocated “looking together at what is offered where, and moving disciplines to more efficient places”.

This would entail universities deciding whether they were a sector “or just an industry of competing providers. Is it ultimately a collaborative venture, with competition to spur improvement, or is it an all-out competitive game?”

Professor Parker acknowledged that such an approach could consign Australia to a university system much like that of the Netherlands – full of strong performers, but with no shining lights in the world top 30 or 40. However, that would be a “softer landing” than the current trajectory promised.

“We can still focus on being excellent, somewhere in Australia, at everything that matters,” he said.

Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, said such a change was only likely if governments or public agencies either encouraged it through planning and funding, or imposed it through classification mechanisms.

“Specialisation is a great idea in theory, but it won’t be achieved by voluntary cooperation,” he said. “It doesn’t arise naturally in markets.

“Left to themselves in the present Australia, institutions will struggle to be all things to all people. That is the outcome of the logic of competition when every university has the same nominal template and mission.”

Australian-born higher education expert Hamish Coates said there was no reason for universities to conduct research and offer doctoral education in all fields. “That just doesn’t make sense in a small country where government funding has been in retreat,” said Professor Coates, now with Tsinghua University’s Institute of Education.

“Research activities should be concentrated. There’s no doubt that’s already happening, and needs to happen where really big equipment is involved.”

Professor Coates stressed that specialisation in research did not entail specialisation in teaching. “Should you have to leave a country town and go to a big city to study some core undergraduate curricula? No, it should be taught in your regional university. If it’s a niche topic, of course it shouldn’t be – that’s a waste of resources.

“But we need to acknowledge that research and teaching are functionally separate activities. To service national needs and compete globally, Australian universities need to affirm teaching.”

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