May Update

Now at the end of May and way past time for another blog post. There has been a lot happening over the last couple of months.

What Are Universities For?

There were two events in Canberra in the same week at the beginning of March. The first was a British Council Global Education Dialogue on ‘Catapults to Commercialisation – How Can Universities Use Their Research More Effectively’. At this, UK universities shared their experience of research commercialisation and engagement. It was interesting to me to see how far university thinking in the UK has come. From memory, universities had to be steered and bribed by the government into taking industry engagement seriously but have now embraced it as well as the benefits. One comment, in relation to managing the academic enterprise as being like herding cats, was that you need to move the food bowl. This is on the basis that academia is a prestige, rather than a financial, economy and academics respond strongly to prestige indicators.

The second event was the Universities Australia conference. The conference was interesting in that there were much stronger themes around industry engagement and social outcomes and less discussion on how we push Australian universities up the global research rankings. To my mind, all of this was good.

The opening address of the conference was from Michael Crow who is the President of Arizona State University (ASU). A charismatic and compelling speaker, he spoke about the approach they have taken at ASU to the ‘New American University’. He had a nice metaphor of conventional notions of university esteem being based on a “metal railroad of status” which require universities in front of you to pull over into a siding before you can improve your own position. From his standpoint this means defining universities in terms of who they keep out rather than who they include. He argues that for ASU it was much better to take a different route and they have sought to increase access and define themselves by who they include and by how well they work with industry. They have carved a distinctive niche for themselves and have made significant improvements in retention.

ASU’s approach to strategic planning and student focus were influential when we reviewed the CSU strategy in 2012. I visited ASU last January and know that using residences and socialising students well was a key part of their strategy. They also have an excellent at-risk monitoring system for their students which allows them to target support quite carefully. I know that Michael’s talk resonated with a lot of people, and many regional universities in particular felt that he spoke to the sense of mission that they share. I think it struck a chord generally with the concerns that universities may have begun to lose sight of their purpose and I suspect that we will see a lot more debate about if not a ‘New Australian University’, at least a renewed idea of the Australian university. Not before time in my view and I have already heard a number of Vice-Chancellors referring to Michael Crow’s vision in describing their own institutions.

Also at the conference, the Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, spoke and amongst his observations pointed out that there is a significant mismatch between the profile of the research done in Australian universities and that of the economy. Going back to the issue of higher education being a prestige economy, we do need to find ways to celebrate success in more than just international journal publications. Last year, the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) proposed an Impact and Engagement for Australia index to complement the Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) exercise and the Australian Technology Network of universities also commissioned research on the impact trial in the ERA in 2011 as well as a report on how to improve the relationship between universities and industry which encourages current government initiatives like the Industry Growth Centres.

Talloires Network, Engagement and Global Rankings

Thanks to a suggestion from Jan Reid AC, formerly Vice-Chancellor at University of Western Sydney, I have been elected to the Steering Committee of the Talloires Network of universities dedicated to Civic Engagement. CSU has not previously been a member of this but we are in the process of joining. The Leaders Conference held in December 2014 in South Africa noted the tension between community engagement and the agenda that is being driven by research-focussed global rankings schemes.

I have noted in some of my commentary on the fee deregulation issue that I do not know what tangible outcomes arise from having a certain number of universities in the Top 100 or Top 50 of any of the rankings schemes. I also think that we seem to be placing far too much reliance on rankings, both in terms of their accuracy and in terms of what they represent. For example, in the Time Higher Education (THE) Rankings, University of Melbourne has been the top ranked University appearing between 2011 to 2015 at 45, 43, 39, 43 and 41. Now, universities are reasonably slow to change and the THE rankings are based significantly on reputation surveys so it’s not as if we are dealing with a precise scientific measurement. However, in some of the press commentary there was a bemoaning of the drop of Australian universities from 2013-14 and a celebration of the increase from 2014-15. It would seem much more likely to me that the rankings are only accurate to +/- 10% and we probably should be thinking about much longer-term trends. On top of that, in the particular case of the THE Rankings, the assessment of teaching quality is based on staff-student ratios. This is a meaningless and unhelpful measure of teaching quality in my view. For all of these reasons, we have decided not take part in the THE Rankings for now at least.

Federal Reforms and Federal Budget

In March we also saw Minister Pyne’s deregulation reforms defeated for a second time in the Senate. It is really not clear where the government will go from here although the Minister has said he will re-introduce the reform package again. The Government is sticking to the line that the reforms will pass, although I can find few people who believe this. Of course, keeping the reforms as proposed legislation allows the Government to count the savings they have proposed which includes the 20% cut to Commonwealth Support for Universities and this is part of their explanation as to how they will reduce the size of the deficit.

We have just had the 2015 Budget announcements and one of them is that the money to pay for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme will come from the Sustainable Research Excellence Fund (SRE). This is in fact a cut of future increased funds so the SRE money will not reduce, but it will not increase as fast as was planned. The SRE funds were to help support the indirect costs of research based on the Bradley and Lomax-Smith reviews which identified that universities were underfunded. Once again, when budgets get tight, government have little compunction about raiding university funding.

The Government also announced that the Office for Learning and Teaching would be abolished and its functions put out for tender to universities. I think this is a shame. The Australian Learning and Teaching Council was an independent national body through which academics could demonstrate that their work in teaching and learning was achieving national and international prominence. Moving this under the wing of the Department of Education as the Office for Learning and Teaching diminished this and spreading it across universities will diminish it further. Going back to the idea of higher education being a prestige economy, it is important that academics are able to claim appropriate kudos for their work.  I think the sector will need to ensure that we create structures which achieve the equivalent effect.

Vice-Chancellors and Chancellors Visit to Wagga Wagga

On 18th and 19th May we welcomed the Universities Australia Plenary meeting of Vice-Chancellors and the University Chancellors’ Committee meetings to the Wagga Wagga campus.  The Mayor, Rod Kendall, hosted a civic welcome at the Wagga Art Gallery.  Since Rod didn’t use it, I pinched one of his lines to say that Wagga is the centre of the universe because it’s halfway between Sydney and Melbourne, halfway between Auckland and Perth, and halfway between New York and London – if you fly the right way. I also reminded visitors that Wagga can also claim a critical cultural contribution as the (admittedly fictional) birthplace of Dame Edna Everage and the little known fact that the Eurythmics started in a Wagga hotel.

The visit was a great opportunity to showcase the facilities at Wagga including the National Life Sciences Hub, the Veterinary Clinic and Equine Facilities and the Animation Laboratories.  From the feedback we got people really enjoyed it.  For the visitors, the end was marred slightly by an enormous thunderstorm but the locals were just glad of the rain.