Ed Byrne: Consolidated gains

January 1, 1990

4 October 2012

Ed Byrne recommends international collaboration between institutions to achieve excellence - Australians have taken to the idea like a duck- billed platypus to water

Australia takes great pride in punching above its weight. You can see it in our efforts in the sporting arena. Our recent Olympic showing may have fallen short of expectations, but at 10th in the medals table we still performed well for a country with fewer than 25 million people. You can also see it in another set of tables - international university rankings. What lies behind our success in higher education?

To begin with, we're working from a strong base. We have evolved effective public-private funding models, and the government has maintained reasonably good levels of research funding. But neither of those things is new. I suspect two more recent trends go some way to explaining our continued improvement in the rankings.

One of the major drivers of university excellence is cross-national collaboration. This encompasses both research collaborations, as seen in paper authorship, and international student movement. It will be increasingly difficult to be a great university in the years ahead without a truly global presence.

The rise of Asia gives Australian universities huge opportunities in this regard that were not fully open to them in the past. Although our culture and institutions have strong ties to old friends in Europe and North America, we are also close in time zone, geography and increasingly in cultural attitude to many major Asian economies.

Australian institutions are embracing opportunities for close partnerships with Asia. The Group of Eight (Go8), which represents Australia's research-intensive universities, has developed close links with China 9, its Chinese counterpart. The University of Melbourne hosts the Australia India Institute. The University of Sydney has identified many academics in multiple fields engaged in Sino collaborations and drawn them together in the China Studies Centre. Monash University has developed a PhD/research centre with the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, and has also been granted a licence for a graduate research academy in China in partnership with Southeast University, the first of its type. The centre will offer a range of master's and PhD programmes as well as research facilities. These and similar initiatives are embedding Australian universities intellectually in Asia even more effectively than in the past.

The second area where a great deal of activity is under way can loosely be termed academic strengthening of the workforce. Our universities are active in research, with most centred in the Go8 institutions. Most have workforce models comprising about 40 per cent research, 40 per cent education and 20 per cent enabling time. Monash, to give one example, has recently approved (with faculty and academic board leadership) academic performance expectations for research-active staff (who comprise more than 95 per cent of the total) and will manage against them. It has also recognised dedicated educators by developing a career pathway of equal esteem for education-focused staff, which allows promotion to associate professor and full professor on clear educational achievement. More than 100 staff have moved in this direction. These are the university's educational "black belts" who are leading new approaches and pedagogies.

The third factor is one for which universities cannot take credit - the home and away effect. Australia is famous for the quality of life it offers. The Economist recently ranked Melbourne the world's most liveable city. Perth, Adelaide and Sydney also feature in the top 10. That gives us an unfair advantage in attracting talent. Academics can enjoy the climate, the high living standards and relaxed lifestyle while still pursuing the career opportunities that come from working in a top-tier university. It is a rare combination.

In the future, the next challenge for top universities will be to forge a global physical presence to match their global intellectual presence. Doing so will unlock new vistas in collaboration and provide much richer educational opportunities for students. But not even the greatest institutions will be able to do it on their own. Deep alignments of culturally sympathetic partners are starting to emerge. The model is not too dissimilar, at a basic level, from the consolidation of the airline industry around key network partners. In both cases, the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. The first such alliance, launched by the University of Warwick and Monash, is rapidly gaining momentum and may be a game changer. Given the strength of the Australian academy, the attractiveness of such partnerships is likely to grow.

Like our athletes, Australian universities have an ambition to continue to improve. I am confident that our strong base of government support and balanced public-private funding, our liveable cities, our increasingly effective globalisation and our active approaches to academic strengthening will enable us to do so.

Ed Byrne is vice-chancellor and president of Monash University

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