LH Martin Institute | 27 March 2013
The depth and dimensionality of universities
When I told my five year old son that I was going to study at a university, he asked “What’s a university?” My simple answer to him at that time was “it is a school for adults”. But for someone who has worked in the sector for years it made me reflect about the concept of university, what it meant for me when I started my higher education journey some twenty years ago, what it meant now, and what it will mean to my son when he begins his journey down the track.
In today’s context, and particularly in Australia, what really is a ‘university’? And what is the University of Melbourne? What is it, as distinct from RMIT or ANU or Ballarat? Can one be distinguished from others? How does a private higher provider, like Kaplan Business School, resemble a university? It is after all a ‘school for adults’, isn’t it?
In part, the heart of this debate sits within the higher education differentiation and diversity agenda. Putting it simply, differentiation in the higher education system is the process in which different structures and functions (such as research and teaching) develop from a formerly integrated whole (such as the institution). Diversity can be read as the variety of types of entities (such as universities, courses) in the system or to the combination of the variety of types and dispersion of entities across the types. These concepts have a long history in academia and policy. Many have argued in favour of differentiation and diversity, and policy makers around the world have attempted, in one way or another, to create, maintain or enlarge the diversity of their higher education systems.
The LH Martin Institute in collaboration with the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) is responding to these questions by developing a university profiling tool. Based on the European U-Map and U-Multirank projects, this tool has been developed to map Australian higher education institutions.
By providing information about the activities and performance of a higher education institution in terms of the dimensions of its mission, the profiling tool allows stakeholders to ‘read’ the institution and assess its fit to their needs and priorities. The tool comprises a broad range of information about Australian institutions—providing a more comprehensive picture of an institution compared with simplistic ‘unidimensional’ rankings and league tables. It is not a ranking but rather a visualisation of each institution that allows people to explore characteristics and strengths.
The initial production focuses on Australia’s 41 universities. Flowing from the European developments, the Australian version is based on empirical data for 29 key indicators across five dimensions of teaching and learning, student attributes, research involvement, knowledge exchange and international orientation. The results are presented as a sunburst chart (see below) which reveals the full array of a university’s activities.
The sunbursts were workshopped at a seminar with national stakeholders in February. The de-identified 41 sunbursts were distributed to participants, who were divided into four teams. Each team examined the profiles and identified institutional groupings based on criteria they thought offered insight into each cluster of universities and their constituent institution missions.
Two key insights emerged from the seminar. First, the use of multiple dimensions and colour-coding was visually engaging. It allowed participants to easily identify patterns across institutions and make their own judgements of what is more relevant and important. The diverse suite of measures enabled people to visually identify distinct institutional missions, otherwise potentially obscured.
Second, and more importantly, the exercise revealed substantial diversity within the system. Three of the four teams categorised universities into five or more classifications, suggesting that on face value there are at least five distinct institutional groups. The exercise shed light on the notable diversity among our universities, countering any belief that all Australian universities are the same.
In an era of increasing accountability and chance, a transparent tool which provides information about an institution’s activities plays an important role—not only for the institution through better strategic positioning but also for students, staff, government and industry. For students and parents, for instance, it is about finding the right university for further study that meets the needs and particular characteristics of the family. For the government, it is about finding the right mix of institutions to serve the system’s interests alongside other national agendas. This is not only important for improving the performance of the higher education system but also in progressing the economic, social and cultural vitality of Australia.
The LH Martin Institute-ACER profiling tool will be released later this year.