Call for creation of teaching-focused universities in Australia

Consultants argue Humboldtian ideal of research-informed teaching ‘shackles’ institutions into uniformity

October 23, 2018
Humboldt University of Berlin

Australian universities are “shackled” into uniformity by a Humboldtian ideal of research-informed teaching, even though assessment exercises show that performance in the two spheres is largely unconnected, a new study argues.

The paper, by consultants Nous Group, blames Australia’s provider standards for the lack of diversity among the country’s universities. These reserve university title to institutions that conduct research in at least three disciplines, but leave providers too scared to try anything different, the study says.

The standards are also accused of driving a perverse regime of opaque funding arrangements, with A$2 billion (£1.1 billion) of research cross-subsidised by tuition fees.

“We shackle the best of everything by demanding the same from everyone,” says the Nous paper.

The paper argues that the time is ripe for change, with both the governing Coalition and opposition Labor Party questioning the future of tertiary education structures.

“Sensibly constructed, reframed policies could properly fund different kinds of research and allow more diversity – at better value – in teaching and learning,” the paper says.

The paper proposes a new category of university, focused primarily on teaching and able to deliver degrees at a lower cost – leaving students with “less substantial debt imposts” in the process.

Such an approach would also be cheaper for the government, the paper says, adding that the savings could be allocated to a merit-based research fund and a separate fund for “place-based research and engagement”.

“Universities could choose which funds they compete for, based on their strengths and missions, unimpeded by the need to stretch resources to meet centralised regulatory requirements,” the paper says.

For the study, published on 24 October, Nous plotted universities’ average research scores, as assessed under the Excellence in Research for Australia exercise against Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching scores for teaching, student experience and career outcomes.

All three show little correlation between teaching and research, the paper says. Institutions with high QILT results often score lowly on ERA and vice-versa.

The Nous paper builds on an April offering from its principal consultant, former Canberra bureaucrat Robert Griew. It has emerged six days after the government announced the appointment of former Queensland University of Technology vice-chancellor Peter Coaldrake to head a long-awaited review of Australia’s higher education provider category standards.

Education minister Dan Tehan explained that the review would examine whether the standards should “evolve” to improve the sector’s flexibility and transparency. “It’s important the provider categories can accommodate changing practices in higher education and encourage choice of educational offerings,” he said.

Australian National University vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt delivered a passionate defence of the Humboldtian tradition last month, in a keynote speech to Times Higher Education’s World Academic Summit in Singapore.

Professor Schmidt warned that severing the teaching-research nexus would trigger a “dangerous and unsustainable” cycle where teaching eventually became “completely decoupled from the research of the day”.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

Looking at some Universities the income and 'profit' from putting as many 'bums on seats' as possible through taught degrees already seems to be the preferred trading model, with any research being an afterthought if considered at all. Certainly some left-wing groups who seek to control the academe and academics freedom would prefer to be able to 'teach' their propaganda without the deep thinking and questioning research academics were once known for, though most now tow the 'correct' ideological line through fear of complaint and 'bandwagoning' (anti) social media not just enables but drives, rather than raise their heads above the parapet.
My take is: 1. The categorization of HE institutions into three main kinds of institutions: Teaching institutions (TIs), Teaching-cum-research institutions (TRIs); and Research-focused institutions (RIs) is right, obvious, so essential for overall national development and prosperity as each is focused on one primary function supported by remaining others two. But teaching remains more or less a common component for all teachers (faculty) irrespective of the said types of institutes. 2. Any University Act defines approved Principal to AP, Librarian and many more officiating in the university as "teacher". 3. There is no denying that inclusion of research in API (Academic Performance Index as defined in India) has diverted the faculty focus from teaching giving undue focus/importance to research for in CAS (Career Advancemnet Scheme in India) PhD qualification is linked with faculty salary. 4. Is it really necessary to possess Ph D degree for teaching UG/PG classes? I sincerely think it is not. 5. In short, salary be linked with job performance at any faculty level (Assistant Professor, Associate Professor and Professor) and not merely to degrees, i.e. an experienced PG faculty needs to get, if found eligible otherwise, the same salary as that of Associate Professor and Professor. As per AICTE (All India Council for Technical Education) CAS provisions 75% posts of Professors are reserved for Assistant Professors. AICTE can suitably amend the existing recruitment/CAS norms based on the type of institute, linked with job performance, without any faculty salary structure discrimination. 6. Promotion is not a matter of right, however.

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