Comment—What future Australian universities?

On 7 February 2000, Professor John White, Secretary, Science Policy, made the following comment.


The recent government 'White Paper' on Higher Education Research is a 'blueprint' which could set the university scene in Australia for ten or more years. It has been labelled 'too late – too simplistic' by the Academy. Is it good enough?

Australia’s most important Innovation Summit ever meets in Melbourne on 10-11 February. Will it be able to help show a way forward for the nation’s universities – our largest research and innovation contributors? Since they became subject to an industrial award in 1991, the universities may not have quite become mere factories for graduate production but something vital has been lost. Their research agenda have suffered almost random attrition because of short-sighted and simplistic policy and, in the struggle for survival as education businesses, the academic cultures of learning for its own sake and interdisciplinary respect have been weakened. Paradoxically, these may be values that Australia should be striving to safeguard in the twenty-first century.

In straight accounting terms, the higher education system has shown its productivity as a national income and wealth generator. There is a demonstrable return on funds invested. For government expenditure on higher education of almost $5 billion per annum, about $3 billion per annum come back in the form of income tax from academics ($1 billion), student HECS repayments ($1 billion) and student fees ($1 billion). Surely a good return!

The current malaise in Australia’s universities has been obvious for some time, if not officially recognised by Government. Three years of costly enquiry and draft reports later, the recently issued Higher Education Research White Paper, though containing good reforms, for the Australian Research Council for example, is a disappointment. Unlike its Green predecessor, it leaves much important detail unresolved. Australian universities can only hope that some remediation of this will occur in the implementation processes, with consultation.

Three serious concerns that should be addressed at the Innovation Summit, by the Chief Scientist’s 'Review of the Australian Science Base', and ultimately by government, are:

  • The lack of additional funding for research and research infrastructure to balance what has been promised last year on the medical side. In the international innovation context, a strategic loss of research balance in Australia should be unthinkable.
  • A failure to propose real quality measures of research output to guide research funding – moving the deck chairs does nothing to assist the engines.
  • The 'linkage' proposals are over-emphasised. Applied research will always need a strong, well-funded science base underpinning it.

I give here some suggestions for the way ahead, based on recent submissions from the Australian Academy of Science and a plea for some balancing policy on teaching quality.

Quality must come first – robust assessment needed

Simply put, Australia’s higher education problem is that, subsequent to the doubling of the number of universities since 1988, we have too many universities attempting to do research and research training 'across the board' at the highest international level. The number of Australian higher degree research student enrolments almost doubled between 1989 and 1998. The growth was strongest in the humanities and social sciences. Our higher education sector appears to have been drawn into a race for research degree enrolments by the funding formulae of the last ten years.

The new formulae of the recent White Paper, with their weak quality component, will make the situation worse. Is this to say that we should abandon the vision of the unified national tertiary education system which allows Australia to lead the world in access by young people to higher studies? – certainly not! Instead, quality of research (and eventually teaching), measured impartially and against the highest standards, must be used to reward excellence in however small a university it is found.

The Academy of Science, the Australian Research Council, the National Academies’ Forum and many others have suggested a robust research assessment process, simpler than those in other major OECD countries but where quality of outputs is rigorously measured. This process would be limited in time by a 'sunset clause' allowing the universities to then largely 'take over'. This process could be implemented by strengthening the independent body foreshadowed in the White Paper. A research assessment exercise, with broad enough quality indicators and impartial nationwide standards, could produce a sustainable growth of diversity in the research roles of higher education institutions.

The Institute of Advanced Studies

One of the great research performers of the country, the Institute of Advanced Studies at the Australian National University, is briefly mentioned in the White Paper but with a great lack of understanding of its history of achievements and its potential to invigorate the innovation system. Though a recognised world leader in many fields, it has had no substantial supplement to its funding since 1990.

Despite the excellent report of a comprehensive international review in 1995, it has had to mirror all other universities with large staff cuts to ensure that its research remains focused and internationally competitive. For such a generator of innovation, the White Paper has produced only grudging entry to national funding sources on the same basis as other universities. The price for being allowed to compete is high – a cut of 20% of its research budget and, much more important, the probable sacrifice of its independent 'long term' research philosophy unless further staff cuts are made to redeploy money. An element of the plurality of Australia’s research agenda is at stake as well as the future of the national research facilities sited at ANU.

A higher education policy guided only by research is not good enough

Personal enquiries to a number of universities around the country indicated how much things have changed even since 1996. Anecdotally, Commonwealth direct funding for some was down 30% and HECS contributions up by 50% on their 1996 values to 1998. Analysis of DETYA statistics bears this out and shows that the financial stresses have already precipitated diversity – but how random, and at what cost?

The attached figure shows the percentage of an institution’s income from various sources for three representative groups of universities for 1996, 1997 and 1998. Group A comprises Melbourne, Sydney, Australian National University, University of Western Australia and University of New South Wales, Group B is formed from mostly 'pre-Dawkins' universities, Newcastle, University of Technology Sydney, Griffith, Latrobe, Wollongong, and the University of Tasmania and Group C is University of Canberra, Curtin, Charles Sturt, Queensland University of Technology, University of Central Queensland and University of Western Sydney.

The percentage of an institution’s income from various sources for three representative groups of universities for 1996, 1997 and 1998 (described above).

The proportion of Commonwealth direct funding has fallen for each group while the fraction of income from HECS and student fees increased strongly across the system. 'Market forces' are biting but hidden behind the data are mergers of discipline areas and, probably unexpected, losses of scientific research capacity even in some of our greatest institutions. School student perceptions about job opportunities drive these 'forces' strongly – and for the enabling sciences of mathematics, physics and chemistry, the negativeness of these perceptions is a deep-seated problem. At present the close gearing of university finance to undergraduate student numbers is a prescription for haphazard change in the nation’s research capability.

To complement the research policy outlined in the White Paper, strong and comprehensive policy to encourage and reward teaching quality is needed to balance the university funding model. This policy need not divide the university system. With new money and an astute incentives, Australia could re-energise its broad higher education sector and get the best of both worlds, as in some parts of the United States. One attractive model there is the 'liberal arts college'. Renowned excellence in undergraduate instruction is a clear goal for these colleges, there are very few PhD programs but research thrives in a few centres of excellence in many places.

How much industry linkage is needed?

More 'linkage', rather than research quality assessment, seems to be the White Paper’s 'panacea' which will lead simultaneously to industrial innovation and a smooth diversification of the higher education system. Clearly, closer links between universities and industry are valuable to the nation. But the greatly enhanced emphasis on linkage in the White Paper is too central to the funding formulae. It risks further destruction of Australia’s academic creativity through a focus on short-term goals.

The experience of the last ten years shows that a simplistic vision behind funding formulae produces uniformity and mediocrity. Competition for curiosity driven research funds is now intense – only the top 20% of 'blue sky' proposals to the Australian Research Council are funded each year. The success rate for industry-linked proposals is twice that through the Cooperative Research Centres, the ARC SPIRT program and the START programs of the Department of Industry, Science and Resources. Universities already have many possibilities to generate links to industry. What is needed now to add to the 'university pull' to industry is greater 'industry pull' to universities. Part of this may come from the Government’s recent changes to tax law, but there is a lot of ground to make up if the nation’s industrial spend on research is to match that of comparable OECD countries.

Where is the long-term vision?

The global economy will find the most valuable intellectual property worldwide. Australia’s university heritage places us well in that market and we must reinvest to stay that way. Surely a nation which has led the world by investing in wide access to tertiary education can also devise a way to reward teaching excellence commensurably with research quality? As surely, our economic and cultural future will depend ultimately on open and unfettered though accountable enquiry by the most creative of our scholars. Our universities must become more like gardens than factories. This is the balance to strive for as the White Paper is implemented.

John W White
Australian National University, Canberra

© 2017 Australian Academy of Science

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