Remember Norman Lindsay’s book about The magic pudding?
The pudding is a magic one which, no matter how much you eat it, always reforms into a whole pudding again.
Well, according to this story in the Australian the Tertiary Education Minister, Senator Evans, seems to think that the story describes our university sector. No matter how much gets eaten up by government plans to expand undergraduate enrollments, apparently our universities can just ‘reform’ to maintain excellence. In case you get hit by the pay-wall, here is an extract:
Evans is concerned about large student:staff ratios …. He was concerned that tutorial size had increased in some cases to 25-30 students compared with the 7-8 he remembered at university. … “I dont pretend to have the solutions to it,” Senator Evans told the conference. He said that his first response would be: “I am paying you all this extra money, you ought to be able to fix it, …
As I have noted before, Australian undergraduate education has moved from focusing on a relatively small proportion of the population, into a system that already educates one-quarter of young Australians. And the government wants to raise this to 40%. But our institutions have not changed and our universities try to combine research and research training with mass undergraduate education. Indeed, as an earlier commenter pointed out, the Dawkins reforms of the late 1980s probably exacerbated this by turning all undergraduate training institutions into research universities.
It can’t be done. No amount of fiddling at the edges will allow our current system to produce both high quality research and mass undergraduate education over 39 universities, particularly as Senator Evans immediately rules out any change that would help address the cross subsidies in the current system:
Senator Evans reiterated there were no plans to deregulate student fees or increase the student contribution.
So foreign student revenues will continue to underpin university funding.
What is a solution? My suggestion is a ‘vertical separation’. Most existing universities would focus on undergraduate teaching (perhaps along the lines of teaching focused US universities). Undergraduate educators would not be expected to be researchers – unlike at present. They would be expected to be excellent educators. Research would occur in a small number of separate institutions that would also provide Masters and PhD training.
Would this undermine ‘research training’ at the undergraduate level? Not compared with the alternative of mass education in the existing system. Only a small percent of our undergraduates will go on to research careers. For most undergraduates, university education is about learning generic skills (e.g. critical thinking) and specific knowledge. The change would help our universities to offer top quality education to large numbers of young Australians with research training at the graduate level.
Would this mean less academics employed by the government in research? Yes. Currently almost all university academics are meant to be researchers. But there cannot be 39 institutions in Australia staffed with world class researchers. Many universities have pockets of research excellence but few have excellence in all areas. By having fewer, concentrated research institutions we can get better value for our research dollars.
Would the research institutes be separated from the universities? I think separation probably works better. But the best model for this system in Australia (as an earlier commenter pointed out) was the Institute of Advanced Studies at ANU. That research institute produced world class research but was connected with ‘the faculties’. Unfortunately, over time it has had its funding whittled away and parts have been merged back into the broader university – to ANU’s and Australia’s detriment.
The reform would make research funding transparent. Is that a good idea? I think so. If Australia had a small number of elite research institutions contributing to both basic knowledge and Australia’s cultural, medical, environmental and economic progress, then I suspect that the population would see it as money well spent. The current hidden cross-subsidies make research the poor cousin, depending on the largesse of undergraduate education. It creates schizophrenia in Australian higher education – where research is the measure of ‘worth’ but teaching is the source of funding.
There is no magic pudding for Australia’s universities. Without major reform our universities risk being trapped in a downward spiral that harms both undergraduate education quality and research quality. Simply saying ‘take some money and fix things’, quite frankly, is not good enough Minister. Let’s use some of our research excellence to work out a better way.