Nursery ends and means

January 1, 1990

Hands holding plant shoot in soil

There’s more than one kind of young university, says Richard Higgott, but all need to nourish and be nourished by quality.

The growth in the number of universities worldwide is one of the more dramatic organisational phenomena of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Unesco’s International Handbook of Universities 2012 lists more than 15,000 institutions. Such numbers raise the question of what is a university – and what in particular is a “new” university.

Not all new universities are the same. They can be public or (increasingly) private. In the old developed world, some have morphed from much older colleges of technology or education – they might not be new in years but rather in designation, and often have an emphasis (initially at least) on teaching. We might call them the “de novo” universities. Then there are those institutions that were actually established in the past 50 years with the remit of the more traditional university – research and teaching (not research or teaching). We might call them the “young ones”.

Typical of the first group are the former UK polytechnics and the Australian institutes of technology awarded university status. Typical of the second are the UK’s 1960s “plate-glass” institutions such as the universities of Essex, Kent, Lancaster and Warwick, and Australian bodies such as Flinders, Griffith and Murdoch universities, founded in the early 1970s.

Similar, but in need of sharp distinction, are the “poster children” of developed Asia, notably the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

The de novo universities more often than not have a long track record of teaching, a larger student body and a more focused vocational remit, while the young ones usually have stronger research and fewer students.

But both have three things in common: neither has the benefits secured from the traditions, longevity and accrued esteem of established universities; both have to make their way in a world characterised by the challenges of globalisation; and both operate without the massive state support accorded to the Asian poster children.

All new universities face constraints and opportunities in making the transition from nationally to globally competitive universities. All see internationalisation of the student body and research collaboration as paths to sustainability and recognition.

Strategies for dealing with the challenges of globalisation and capitalising on the benefits of internationalisation vary. New universities lack the attributes of older ones: endowments, secure domestic markets and strong international brands. Those in the developed world most likely cater (usually willingly, I should say) for a broader range of students than the elite. Murdoch University, for example, enrols only 35 per cent of its undergraduates direct from school and takes large numbers of mature students from low socio-economic areas while growing its offshore activities (we have 6,000 students in Singapore). The contrast here with Asian institutions is stark.

In search of reputation and revenue diversity, the imperative to secure a toehold in the global market is a priority for new universities. Too often, this imperative, in the UK and Australia at least, can lead to a “never mind the quality, feel the width” approach to securing students. Adverse consequences have arisen from such approaches. The other dimension of the traditional university – the pursuit of knowledge through research – can too easily be sidelined in the dash for growth.

Teaching and research are the key drivers of international reputation: successful engagement with the dynamics and imperatives of global transition requires both. This is especially true for the young ones. For a successful maturation process while maintaining an essential university character in the global academy’s fast-changing environment, several things are needed.

First, it must be acknowledged that the young ones are never likely to be fully comprehensive in a disciplinary sense. Nor, unlike de novo institutions, can they simply go for volume if they wish to maintain a calibrated research-teaching balance (with research as the driver). They need rather to search for a “rounded specialisation” in which they have substantial pockets of genuine research excellence, accompanied by an ability to deliver a rounded education across a wider range of disciplines. Perhaps the exemplar here is not a young one but an Asian poster child: the HKUST, which has world-class science, some world-class social science and reasonable breadth in the humanities.

Second, it is necessary to remember the bedrock assumptions of the university: commitment to research and teaching, not just research or teaching. Of course, not all academic staff will do both, but the young ones’ starting assumption must be that the vast majority of faculty will, in recognition of the inseparable link between the production of knowledge and its dissemination. Having two academic classes – a small core of highly qualified researchers and a large group of teaching-only staff – might be a financially viable and successful model, but it is difficult to think of it as a university in the traditional sense of the word. And it will not work for young ones such as my institution, which tend to be smaller than de novo universities.

A third (and perhaps most pressing) priority for the young ones is to stick to a quality agenda in all they do. This is especially important for universities embarking on the path to internationalisation. This must not be driven by the search for more students and more revenue alone. Income generation without quality is unsustainable in the cross-border regulatory age. Quality overseas needs to be as good as at home. Regulatory agencies increasingly are global and joined up.

I make these arguments with some feeling. They represent the strategy to which the leadership group at Murdoch is committed. This strategy will require us to hold our nerve over the next few years as things get tougher before they get better (funds will be in short supply and we will have to do more with less if we are to reassert the primacy of quality). It also requires us to bring the academic community along in a “shared governance” format rather than in a corporate, rule-maker, rule-taker relationship. Strategy should be developed with academic quality at its core. For the quality agenda to prevail, universities need to be academically led and governed, not simply managed.

Is this strategy Canute-like in its aspirations? Time will tell. Reputations, like Rome, are not built in a day.

Richard Higgott is vice-chancellor and president of Murdoch University.

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