Australia’s universities are the results of a government-imposed cookie-cutter process. They face incentives to be alike with a Federal Government owner that appears to want them all to be equal. Pretty much the same fees, same funding, same research and same teaching incentives.
Glyn Davis and Margaret Gardner, the VCs at the University of Melbourne and RMIT respectively, discussed this here. The comment that I found interesting came from Professor Gardner:
Listen up, policymakers — for Australia, it should be a world-class university system, not world-class universities . . . that should be their goal…
Sorry Margaret, but you are both right and wrong. We need world-class universities. But to get them, we need a world-class university system.
A world class system would allow for differentiation and specialisation. The comparison to the US is stark. Forbes has just released its annual ranking of the best US colleges for undergraduate education. It bases this on student satisfaction, teaching quality, graduate outcomes and cost.
The top school? Williams College in Massachusetts.
Never heard of it? You would have if you lived on the east coast of the US. It is an exceptional college that concentrates on high-quality education for undergraduates. It is very competitive to get into and very highly regarded for its graduates. It is not a research leader – and does not try to be. Its equivalent in Australia does not exist – because Williams College is different to the elite research universities and differentiation is not encouraged in Australian universities.
The top 20 on the Forbes list are a great mix of different institutions. Some ‘traditional’ research and teaching leaders such as Harvard and Stanford. Some Military Colleges (who win in the low cost stakes but also have exceptional teaching). But most importantly for Australia, the top 20 has lots of relatively small education-focussed institutions – Williams, Amherst, Haverford all in the top 7.
Until the Australian government frees our universities from bureaucratic red tape and encourages specialisation rather than uniformity, Australia will not have the equivalent of these three liberal arts colleges. We will also not have our equivalent of Harvard and Stanford when scarce research funds get spread thinly over all institutions.
If the government allows the flexibility and incentives of a world-class university system, we will have world-class universities. And they will be as different as Williams and Harvard.