Let’s differentiate our Universities

by

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.

 

 

17 Responses to "Let’s differentiate our Universities"
  1. Williams is very near to where I used to live in the US when teaching at RPI. It is a college that values research as well as teaching. The teaching load there is similar to that at research universities like RPI but they expect more individual attention to students and don’t have PhD students. In practice the Australian system is differentiated in terms of research intensity vs. teaching intensity with ANU and Melbourne as the most research intensive, the other Go8 in the next rank, then UTS, Macquarie etc. and then places like U Canberra or USQ in the most teaching oriented group. All 4 year universities and colleges in the US do value scholarship to some degree, so I don’t think the system is that different.

  2. I don’t think the US is a good model for Australia at all. The whole Ivy League, with Stanford and MIT thrown in educates about 1 per cent of the college age cohort, with massive over-representation of those coming from, and destined for, the top 1 per cent of US households that now account for 25 per cent of all US income and 40 per cent of wealth.
    Add in all the high-grade liberal arts colleges like Williams and you might account for another 1 per cent of the age cohort. Translate that to Australia, and you could maybe manage two institutions with enrolments of 3000 apiece.
    The relevant comparators for Australia are the US state flagships and they are in pretty bad shape these days.

  3. David – agree all 4 year Universities and Colleges in the US value scholarship – and that is a great word for it. But there is a distinction between institutions and institutions are proud of that distinction. In Australia all universities try to be like each other. Only some succeed and are at the top of the research (and prestige) heap. But where are the universities that both attract top students and have the explicit focus on educational experience as the first priority? 

    John – I am not saying we should adopt the US model. But we do need to create a system that has more differentiation and where institutions that have more focus on undergraduate teaching can excel. One of the points in the Forbes story was that some Ivy League institutions rank relatively poorly – pushed out by institutions that give more individual attention to the students.  

  4. Until the Dawkins reforms that amalgamated Institutes of Higher Education in with universities Australia had technical teaching institutions alongside research focussed universities.
    Students flocked to Caulfield Institute for Information Technology and Engineering, RMIT for Accounting, Melbourne University for Law and Monash University for Medicine

  5. The equivalent of Williams College in Australia would be Bond University. It is independent and focuses on “industry relevant” courses rather than trying to be all things at the same time.

  6. Pre-Dawkins there was a clear distinction between research and non-research based tertiary institutions. We even had different names so nobody could get confused. But that was a very different era, where the bulk of University funding came from Canberra. That is no longer the case. Nor can Oz Universities rely on philanthropic endowments like the Ivy leagues. That is the main reason why we cannot have a group of research Universities as in the US. There is nobody willing to fund it. Simple.
    Self funded universities cannot afford to concentrate on loss making blue-sky research. Administrators pretend that they care but they would much rather an Age headline than an AER article. Except for rankings which are the masking tape presently holding things together. The G8 mainly support research so that they can brag about their rankings to attract….more fee paying overseas students.
     
    I am pretty pessimistic about the future of academia. I fear that in 100 years time there will be no significant research carried out in the public sector. It will be all commercial or military and application driven. The direction of political will is clear. Regaining a commitment to publicly funded research is about as likely as the government taking over the banks.
     

  7. There is a lot to like about the diversity among the highest-rated US colleges. An Australian university sector with greater choices for students (and academics) would be great.
     
    But, Stephen, how do you see any transition occurring?  What would need to change in terms of:
    – government policy?
    – funding sources?
    – enrolment attitudes (by students and parents)?
    – employer behaviour (in terms of hiring graduates)?
    – strategic decision-making by Vice Chancellors etc?

  8. I agree with what seems the prevailing sentiment here that more institutional diversity is likely to be a good thing although it also seems to me that institutions do already differ in many respects (as suggested by DS).

    Like JQ, I doubt that the US model is something that can, or should, be implemented here. As a matter of fact, given the considerable endowments that the top US colleges and universities have (which allows them to subsidize significantly their present students, hoping for deferred returns), it seems impossible. (And, no, DT, Williams is anything but a place focusing on ‘industry relevant’ courses really it’s one of the 50 – 60 liberal arts colleges that still teach for the most part a liberal arts curriculum. And those kids who get a chance to take those colleges up on their offers are privileged indeed. I know because I taught for a long time at one of Williams College’s close competitors.) As JQ points out correctly those 98 percent of higher education that Williams College does not represent (the US state flagships, and community colleges, and for-profit education corporations) are indeed in pretty bad shape. As is the accreditation system that has allowed all that to happen. 
    To my mind, Andre’s ask all the right questions.  I doubt that it is desirable, or feasible, to design a new architecture of higher education. It won’t happen. Too many conflicting interests here.
     
    What might work is to agree on certain principles, let the government set the framework, and then let the market do its magic. Here is the principles that I propose:

    First, cut through the incredible bureaucracy.  I know Australians love a form but what I have encountered here is outright absurd. Paul Frijters and others have made this point elsewhere, so I won’t belabor it.

    Second, it would help if Australian universities re-think the role of the faculty. It’s a natural counterpoint to the excesses of (inevitably) hierarchical bureaucracies. If the faculty is not given voice, they will choose exit in its various forms. That can’t be a good thing. It is no coincidence that Williams and other such places have even now strong elements of academic self-governance. 

    Third, make the ARC transparent and accountable. Part of that has to be the re-introduction of the ranking/classification of journals. (Another part has to be a revision of the classification of journals.)    

    Fourth, reduce the reliance on the cross-subsidization of research and teaching of domestic students through foreign students. The government will have to step up to the plate if it wants truly world-class universities / a world-class.  
     

  9. meant to say: reduce the reliance on the cross-subsidization of research and teaching of domestic students through foreign students. The government will have to step up to the plate if it wants truly world-class universities / a world-class university system.

  10. Andreas,
     
    “First, cut through the incredible bureaucracy.  I know Australians love a form but what I have encountered here is outright absurd.”
     
    I could not agree more. From the standpoint of both Europe and the US the overhead is sensationally large. I estimated about 72% of government funds going into tertiary education ends up an intermediary activity, most of which is pure bureaucracy. Yet that is not easily displaced. 72% represents a lot of voters who will have plenty of time on their hands to stop you ‘streamlining their activities’. 
    At this moment, whilst times are so good, I think there is no chance. The economy needs to take a dive before this is on the table and I fear that even then the first cuts will not be made to the 72%….

  11. The equivalent of Williams College in Australia would be Bond University. It is independent and focuses on “industry relevant” courses rather than trying to be all things at the same time.

  12. Paul, I could not agree more about the probability for change. I hear you loud and clearly on this. Depressing.
    You write:
    ” From the standpoint of both Europe and the US the overhead is sensationally large. I estimated about 72% of government funds going into tertiary education ends up an intermediary activity, most of which is pure bureaucracy.”
    If you have a paper, or could link to a paper, I’d love to take a look. The number seems rather high. I seem to remember that, way back when, liberal arts colleges spent more than 50 percent on faculty salaries, the complement being bureaucratic activities. So you got me really curious about these numbers. 

  13. Andreas & Paul, we really need to distinguish between moneys spent on Student Servicing and Administration (i.e. removing some of the more mundane mechanics of enrolment and pastoral care from academic faculty) and ‘pure’ Bureaucracy (e.g. form-filling, arse-covering, petty survelliance, empire-building and nest-feathering).
    The issue in Australia is the strong inclination towards the latter, with no appreciable benefits (and lots of negatives).

  14. Andre, point well taken. Question: Are there — publicly accessible — numbers anywhere that allow for the parsing of moneys spent on student servicing and admin and those spent on pure bureaucracy? Preferably as time series? I can recount many examples of bureaucracy gone wild (e.g., the “sustainable research excellence survey” exercise earlier this month that has to be completely worthless both because of the instrument used and the way it is being administered) but what I look for are hard data … .

  15. andre,
     
    of course one wishes to know what aspect is useful and what aspect is useless. Unfortunately, no-one in this literature or in the ministries has yet had the guts to ask people how much time they spend on `useless activities’ nor has anyone yet named their department `the department for ars* covering’. So we are going to have to make do with estimates of the entire overhead.
     
    Andreas,
    I estimated the 72% for a small presentation I did at the last ACE meeting in a room packed to the rafters with academics with first-hand experience of what we are both talking about. Philip Clarke has started an acadaemonics group that presents on such matters. I will send you my slides by email…

%d bloggers like this:
PageLines