Some recent articles from the Australian Higher Education section have caught my eye. The federal government is aiming for 40% of young Australians completing undergraduate degrees. As part of this, the removal of the caps on undergraduate places has led to a significant increase in enrolment this year. See here. At the same time, a number of universities are changing the way they ‘organize’ undergraduate programmes. For example, they are removing the traditional honours year–a year which linked student progression between the chalk-and-talk undergraduate experience and a more research-focused postgraduate experience. Macquarie University is the latest example. See here.
These reforms beg the following question: Given the changing role of undergraduate studies and university degrees, should we change the organisation of universities?
As figure one from Lamb, et. al. shows, about 24% of young people completed high school in 1967. So University undergraduate completions today are now fulfilling a similar role to that filled by the completion of the year 12 of high school 45 years ago. But the way we provide undergraduate education has not fundamentally changed.
So here is my suggestion.
- All public universities would be divided into separate undergraduate and research institutions.
- The undergraduate institutions would have responsibility for undergraduate teaching and Bachelor degree programs.
- Undergraduate teachers would not be assumed (or expected) to be researchers. They would need to be familiar with the frontiers of their relevant area of expertise (just as we expect with upper level high school teachers).
- Undergraduate institutions would not be funded for research.
- A significant expansion of the undergraduate sector would occur through both public and private funding, possibly focusing on smaller local campuses rather than the large integrated campuses that characterise our current universities
- The research institutions formed from our existing universities would be significantly rationalised, perhaps into one-third or one-half of the current number.
- The research institutions would be responsible for research training and would receive funding for fundamental research.
- Staff at the research institutions would be expected to be world-class researchers in their area of expertise.
This is all rather radical so why do it?
First, it recognises that mass undergraduate education cannot be provided by active researchers and does not need to be provided by active researchers. Researchers can focus on research training and on their research.
Second, it removes the conflicts in our current system where revenue from undergraduate education (often paid by international students) is used to cross-subsidize research (and other university activities). So it makes funding transparent and means that education funds flow to education and research funds flow to research.
Third, it allows for more innovation in undergraduate education. It should lead to new entry and new models of teaching.
Fourth, it allows us to rationalise our research into concentrations. We are too small as a country to have 39 different institutions (plus the CSIRO, etc) all being research-excellent over a broad range of areas. So it will raise the average quality of our research and allow our research funds to be better focussed.