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One size does not fit all unis

The case for a new university type

Republished 16 December 2015

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It would be reasonable to assume, as many people do, that the word university derives from the Latin universitas, meaning the whole, entire, and is related to the universality of knowledge and learning that notionally characterises a university. Reasonable but not quite on the mark. It actually comes from a contraction of the Latin phrase universitas magistrorum et scholarium, meaning a community of masters (teachers) and scholars (students).  So from the earliest times, teaching and learning – the transmission of knowledge and understanding – have been at the heart of a university’s mission.  Through the centuries, universities have further emerged as the primary agents of knowledge creation in societies through their research.

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With the emergence of university research capacity, there also emerged the doctrine of the “teaching-research nexus”: that good teaching is informed by active research.

In Australia, we have enthusiastically embraced that doctrine, in theory at least.  Compared with other jurisdictions in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, we have the most specific – and demanding – requirements as to what defines a university.

For an institution to be approved to operate with an “unmodified” university title in Australia, it must provide qualifications at PhD or equivalent in at least three broad fields of study and conduct research in those fields.  By contrast, Massachusetts, home of Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other universities of international standing, requires a university to provide graduate programs in two or more professional fields and programs leading to a doctoral degree in two or more fields of study.

In Britain, there’s nothing very prescriptive at all, beyond being of a certain size, having good governance and being approved as a university.

So on paper, Australian universities are superior institutions.  As it turns out, we do have pretty good universities. In 2008, a European think tank, the Lisbon Council, rated the Australian university system the best out of the 17 OECD systems it assessed. And last year the British Council rated the Australian system second in the world and first in terms of quality assurance.

But that has everything to do with the teaching and learning activities of Australian universities and little to do with research . Indeed, the outcomes of the first  Excellence in Research for Australia round exposed the teaching-research nexus as a myth, with at least half of Australia’s universities not making the grade, in terms of the metrics employed by ERA.

There’s also the trend to concentration of research in the Group of Eight universities, with their share of research income up from 66.9% in 1992 to 69.8% in 2008. By contrast, the Australian Technology Network universities’ share increased from 7% in 1992 to 8.4 per cent in 2008.  In a system of mostly competitive funding, success begets success.

This does not mean some of our universities are therefore failures. The less research-intensive universities conduct research that is socially and economically useful, which won’t be counted in ERA exercises.

But the inescapable conclusion is many of our universities are teaching focused rather than research focused.

Why is this a bad thing? The Lisbon Council, which rated the Australian system so highly, considered that while world-class research is an important aspect that allows some universities to turn out first-class students, for the system as a whole the educational mission is paramount.

The national protocols that govern our system ought to reflect the reality, that we have a continuum of university institutional types from research-intensive to teaching-intensive.

It is past time we addressed the fiction that all universities are research-intensive and that all academics need to be research-active to be good teachers.  Across Australia there are multi-campus universities that cannot maintain the research activity on all campuses that is supposed to sustain the nexus.  Many universities have recognised that good teaching is informed by scholarship by creating teaching-only positions that emphasise scholarship, being currency of knowledge and understanding, over the ideal of research as pure, original discovery.

A report to the federal Education Department in 2001 on the nexus suggested we needed a more nuanced understanding of research and scholarship.  It proposed that Ernest Boyer’s conceptualisation of university work as being constituted by four scholarships (teaching, application, integration and discovery) might provide a framework for understanding the diversity in our university, in terms of the work universities actually did.

Under the present standards, a university college is classified as a university on training wheels, with an institution allowed five years to satisfy the requirements of becoming a comprehensive university  However, with little trouble,  a university college could be classified as a stand-alone institution with a requirement for research in at least one broad field of study. This would make it not much different from a university of specialisation.

It would be worth further refining the concept of a university college to recognise a new university type with a teaching orientation. It’s not an original idea: such institutions are common overseas and have featured in Australia’s higher education past, most notably in the Canberra University College, which existed for 30 years before being absorbed into Australian National University in 1960.

They might be constructed in several ways.   An outlier campus of an existing university with little, if any, research capacity, for example, might be spun out as a quasi-autonomous college but remain a member of that university’s system. TAFE institutes and private providers with an established record might achieve self-accrediting status by locating their higher education within a college.

Such an institution would be a convenient vehicle for collaborations and partnerships between universities and TAFEs (and private higher education providers) and facilitate greater diversity within the system. This is always said to be an aim of policy, despite the effect of policy being to shoehorn institutions into a one-size-fits-all model.

University colleges would also give students a wider choice of institutions and, in thin markets, perhaps provide the only local choice, which is vital in terms of also providing reasonable access to higher education.

But so long as we maintain a slavish devotion to the traditional teaching-research nexus, we not only ignore reality, we almost certainly stifle diversity and limit choice and accessibility.

This article was first published in The Australian 11 May 2011.
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