Should we break up our universities?


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.

  1. All public universities would be divided into separate undergraduate and research institutions.
  2. The undergraduate institutions  would have responsibility for undergraduate teaching and Bachelor degree programs.
  3. 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).
  4.  Undergraduate institutions would not be funded for research.
  5. 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
  6. The research institutions formed from our existing universities would be significantly rationalised, perhaps into one-third or one-half of the current number.
  7. The research institutions would be responsible for research training and would receive funding for fundamental research.
  8.  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.


10 Responses to "Should we break up our universities?"
  1. ANU, for example, has over time gone in exactly the opposite direction from this and is still working on getting all its researchers paid out of continuing funds to teach undergrads or at least masters students. In practice the system in Australia does have multiple tiers with some institutions being more teaching oriented with perhaps a research focus in an area or two – like environmental science at James Cook. I think it makes sense to allow some institutions to become even more pure teaching oriented colleges without expecting that they produce research. But I think undergrad degrees from the Go8 would be worth less internationally if they weren’t taught by people doing research. After all elite liberal arts colleges in the US make a big deal about involving undergrads in research.

  2. I am not sure greater transparency would be a good thing for Australian research. The Government might well choose to fund less research, because there might be less popular support amongst people who can get their degree without any connection to research. “Bundling” research and teaching probably works better in a democracy than unbundling research. This assumes that Australia should do research, which is not a self-evident proposition.    

  3. I agree with your earlier post that we should have more diversity in offerings at Australian Universities – I’m not sure this post would lead to that. Instead we’d have 37 Universities all trying to offer post-grad and competing for a limited pool of researchers. Australia cannot afford that many research universities, and so the real problem is how to ensure that we have 4, or 6, or 8, or 10 (and here of course is the debate) outstanding research universities, and 37 minus x universities with broader objectives.

  4. I believe your recommendation would make standards even worse, at least in maths & physics. How well the subjects are taught is largely dependent on how smart the lecturer is, and I don’t see any smart ones wanting to take on full time teaching.

  5. Thanks for the comments. Some responses:
    Martin – it is not the same as pre-Dawkins which was a dual system. rather, it is a recognition that mass undergraduate education means it cannot be delivered by elite researchers.
    David – the ANU model had the Institute separated from almost all teaching except PhD supervision. So it is ‘closer’ to what I am suggesting. That model seems to have collapsed (at least in the social sciences) partly due to funding issues.
    On international competitiveness, there are issues of international league tables and research. These matter for international student recruitment – but can be overcome. Interestingly, most US liberal arts colleges have few international students compared to Australia and the best ones have relatively few ‘world class’ researchers (as judged by highly-ranked peer-reviewed publications). But they have fantastic educators and deliver some of the best undergraduate education in the world. 
    James – I agree the current bundling helps hide research funding. This benefits researchers (like me) but doesn’t help achieve high-quality mass undergraduate education (which is the government’s aim).
    Mark – I think there would be around 8-10 research institutions. basically the current Go8 (possibly with UNSW/Sydney and Unimelb/Monash both rationalised into two institutions), something in Tasmania (unavoidable if the states are to buy in to the reform) and possibly something around James Cook (because of location and tropical specialisation). Any more would spread our limited group of excellent researchers too thinly.
    Tinos – there is an issue with teacher quality at all levels. We want smart, enthusiastic teachers at all levels. This means we need a general change in perception of teachers so they are regarded as a high prestige profession. But it does not mean that undergraduate teachers need to be researchers. Many very bright researchers are not good teachers. And many smart people who would make excellent undergraduate teachers in maths, physics and other areas do not want to be researchers and are drawn away from teaching generally by its relatively low pay and prestige. So this problem is broader.
    To see the extent of the problem, let’s take the government’s objective seriously. Double the number of existing undergraduate students. Do we really think that these students can best be taught as a part-time activity by highly productive research academics? Or will the expansion of the current system lead to undergraduate educators being forced to justify their positions not by the quality of their teaching but by ticking a largely-irrelevant ‘research’ box on their performance evaluations? I think this is the choice we face – and the solution is to re-engineer our university system.

  6. Martin – it is not the same as pre-Dawkins which was a dual system. rather, it is a recognition that mass undergraduate education means it cannot be delivered by elite researchers.

    Maybe I’m slow, but aren’t you proposing a dual system? Pre-Dawkins, there were Colleges of Advanced Education, say like Chisholm Institute of Technology which did mass undergraduate education but no research and there were research universities like Monash which focussed on research but did some undergraduate education. So similar, except the research universities do no undergraduate education. That’s not necessarily a criticism, just an observation.

    How many of the top 100 world universities do no  undergraduate education? Harvard, Oxford, MIT etc, all do undergraduate education and all have elite researchers so the assertion that you can’t do both doesn’t seem particularly empirically founded.

    If the research universities you propose are going to do no undergraduate education, it would be hard to justify 8-10, more like 3-4 (Melbourne, Sydney, ANU, maybe UQ on the politics) Where do you see the coursework masters being situated? They aren’t research training and they aren’t undergraduate.

    I don’t disagree with your diagnosis of the problem, just a bit sceptical of the solution. 

  7. I come from Newcastle. And these are my uneducated guesses:

    1. Newcastle would lose any research base.
    2. Newcastle would become even more dependent on resource extraction industries.
    3. Newcastle would be stuck in the past (more-so than present).
    4. A regional university is a defining characteristic of the community. You will have loads of graduates with nowhere to go but the capital cities.
    5. Why should we rationalise research institutions? The more the merrier. Economics of scale are implied, however what about network effects. Research collaborations. Geography is less relevant than in the past.
    6. More researchers coming into the field would lead to more world-class researchers (maybe not a direct increase in the ratio, but still)
    7. Australia has a fine history of non-inventing but innovating-adapting. We do not need to plow new furrows, simply

  8. So long as the research grants are granted for specific projects, it shouldn’t matter where the research is being done. In addition to the “39 different institutions” and the CSIRO there are many other not-for-profit and government bodies who are capable of doing good research. If a university’s proposal to do wheat research is deemed to be less worthwhile than a certain proposal from the Back-of-Bourke Cropping Group (for example), then the latter should get the money.

    Government arts grants are typically for research purposes, and very few of those go to universities – they frequently go directly to independant practicioners.

    It is more important that undergraduate teachers know what the current industry standards are (practices within the standard deviation), than what is “cutting edge”. Students don’t need to know the esoteric fringes of knowledge nearly as much as they need to know the core facts.

    This said, it is also important that all undergraduates learn how to do real-world research by doing it. And they should be taught how to do it by people who can do it (and are probably still doing it part-time).

    This research need not be organised by their teaching institution. Work placements in many fields are now not uncommon.

    Almost every academically minded person wants to do research some of the time. And while the value of a university is almost entirely determined by research citations, all universities will be forced to pursue research.

    But the country (and students, and academics at large) have no specific need for research to be conducted in buildings made of sandstone.
    For the sake of attracting International students, perhaps the answer is to take the proposed concept a step further, and simply merge the CSIRO and ANU. Such an institution would have an incredibly high citation-based value. The new body might then deliver courses in conjunction with other organisations, such as Go8 universities.

  9. (In my private capacity), I submit that the basic flaw in this argument is that there is something wrong with teaching cross-subsidizing research.
    There is nothing wrong with requiring academics to teach in order to cross subsidize their own research – there is no reason why a person should not be expected to research and pass on their discipline to the next generation. 
    The real problems in the system are bigger. The main problem is that the government sets a ceiling on the price that a university can charge for an undergraduate degree.  If that were removed then those institutions with the best teachers would be able to charge the highest prices and be able to cross-subsidize research. 
    The government could then take on a role of paying tuition allowances to Australians to pay for their uindergraduate degrees. 
    There would be no need for governments to give any money to any university for research.  Those students with the highest university entrance scores would qualify for the biggests tuition allowances. 
    Academics would all work in an environment in which there would be an incentive to contribute to teaching to raise revenue so as to earn time for their research instead of the current system which encourages academics to minimize the expenditure of effort on teaching in order to maximkize their publications so that they can qualify for research fellowships, research only positions or teaching buyout – that is an incentive to remove themselves from the core operations of the university.

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