11 May 2017
There’s a hint in Budget announcements on higher education that the Government might be entertaining the notion of “teaching-only universities”, reveals Emmaline Bexley (Higher education reform: small changes for now but big ones to come). And about time, too, that the fiction of the “teaching-research nexus” to which Australia slavishly clings be abandoned. The case for a different type of university has been argued for years.
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
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.
The Conversation | 9 May 2017
Gwilym Croucher, Senior Lecturer in the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne:
The government has confirmed the package of changes it announced a week ago with significant cuts. Students in particular will pay more, a lot more.
Student contributions will increase by 1.8% each year between 2018 and 2021 for a total 7.5% increase. This means they will pay 46%, instead of 42%, of the cost of their degree on average.
So, for a four-year course, this is an increase in total student fees of between $2,000 and $3,600. The government claim the maximum any student will pay is $50,000 for a four-year course, and $75,000 for a six-year medical course.
Apart from yearly indexation, this fee rise is only one of a few major increases since the ALP reintroduced fees in the late 1980s and will be smaller than the last time.
While few students will welcome the increase, the evidence from previous fee hikes in Australia is that it will not deter many people from study.
However, when combined with the lower HELP thresholds for repayment and higher repayment rates, the changes may make studying less attractive than in the past, and potentially prohibitive for some students.
Universities too will suffer a direct cut of $384.2 million over two years. This will come in the form of an “efficacy dividend” to the Commonwealth Grant Scheme of 2.5% in 2018 and another 2.5% in 2019.
While no university will go broke from the efficiency dividend, it forms part of a series of cuts. Combined with the changes to how grants are indexed, there is little doubt universities will receive less per student in subsidies in the future, and will have to do more with less.
The package averts the worst cuts from the previous minister’s attempts to deregulate higher education, but offers little in the way of a long-term vision to students or universities.
Bruce Chapman, Professor of Economics at the Australian National University:
Budgets are always contextual and reactions to them will always be relative to alternatives.
The natural comparison of the 2016/17 changes to HECS-HELP is still the extraordinary 2014/15 budget plans of the previous education minister, in which there were to be initial outlay cuts of around 20%, the introduction of a real rate of interest on HELP debts, and the introduction of the facility for universities to charge any fee they chose. If that was a man or woman-eating crocodile, then this budget is a pussy cat.
For HECS-HELP, there is to be an increase in charges introduced over a three-year period, maxing out to 7.5%. This is not a big deal and will not affect student or graduate debt; in effect it will add about a year to how long people have to repay.
More significantly, the first income threshold of payment is to be reduced from the current level of about $55,000 a year to a new and much lower level of $42,000 a year.
But, importantly, the rate of collection of the debt will be cut as well, from 4% to 1% of income. This will mean that the effect on the majority of debtors will be small.
Most affected will be current part-time workers, and the increased obligation essentially means a faster rate of repayment, and not a major impost.
Kira Clarke, Lecturer in Education Policy at the University of Melbourne:
Treasurer Scott Morrison framed his announcement of a new fund for skilling Australians by saying “skilled migration must be on our own terms”.
Appealing to public animosity towards a perceived reliance on skilled migration, the treasurer announced a levy on employers of foreign workers employed under a new temporary skill shortage visa.
Employers will be charged between $1,200 and $1,800 per worker employed under this visa scheme. It is anticipated this levy will contribute to $1.2 billion within the Skilling Australians Fund.
States and territories will be able to access the fund for the explicit purpose of supporting up to 300,000 apprenticeship, traineeship and higher-level skilled workers.
The treasurer’s language in announcing this new pot of money appeared to put the onus on states and territories to stimulate apprenticeship and traineeship opportunities.
Apprenticeship commencements have been in decline, particularly in trade occupations.
This decline is part of a long-term trend, and is compounded by the impact of the gig economy and the reluctance of employers and young workers to enter into four-year training relationships.
Part of a suite of announcements aimed at “Backing regional communities”, the budget also includes $24 million for Rural and Regional Enterprise Scholarships.
The budget papers indicate that scholarships will be available for up to 1,200 students, to support skills development and educational attainment.
While it is unclear whether $15.2 million allocated to establish eight regional study hubs in rural and remote areas will include enhanced access to VET, any increased access to VET programs for regional learners could be a positive step in addressing youth unemployment and lower educational attainment in regional areas.
Bruce Chapman, Director, Policy Impact, Crawford School of Economics and Government, Australian National University; Gwilym Croucher, Senior Lecturer, Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne, and Kira Clarke, Lecturer, Education Policy, Centre for Vocational and Educational Policy, University of Melbourne