Education Unis between a rock and a hard choice

Frank Jackson

First published in The Age on 17 March 2008

When one vice-chancellor calls another vice-chancellor the Sol Trujillo of Australian higher education, you know the gloves are off. Vice-chancellors on occasion speak of their colleagues in surprisingly brisk terms but they don't usually do it in public. What's going on?

Part of the answer is a post-election hangover. Australian universities correctly perceived that the government of John Howard didn't like them much. They knew that an incoming Labor government would be much more supportive.

What they didn't anticipate was the extent to which the Rudd government's determination to fight inflation would restrict its ability to put its hand where its heart is. There won't be a significant overall funding boost for universities in the near future.

At the same time, many in the government recognise that Professor Ian Chubb, vice-chancellor of the Australian National University, is right to say that Australia should have more universities near the top of the international league tables. Currently, in the most respected international ranking we have one university at 57, with the next at 79. There is also a (correct) perception that there's only one way to increase the number of high-ranking Australian universities: arrange things so that, one way or another, some of our universities get more money.

What worries Professor Greg Craven, vice-chancellor of the Australian Catholic University - and the person who tagged Chubb the Sol Trujillo of higher education - is that the obvious way to give some universities more money without an overall boost in funding to the sector is to give others less money. He knows that if this happens, his university will be one of the losers.

But things might not be as bad for his university, and others in same boat, as he fears. What's crucial is how the redistribution is done.

Every university now sees itself as playing or seeking to play a major role in research across the range of its activities. The reality is that there are great differences in research capabilities between our universities, and between different parts of any given university.

Some universities with relatively weak research records overall have pockets of real research strength. Any movement of government research funding should reflect this fact. It should also reflect geographical realities. For example, marine biology makes more sense for a university in Townsville than for one in Melbourne or Sydney.

A nuanced policy of this kind would allow all universities to support their research strengths. It would also encourage universities to pick up on an idea floated by Professor Paul Johnson, vice-chancellor of La Trobe University. Some staff in our universities would be teaching and research staff, and some would be primarily teaching staff.

There is a shibboleth that you can't be a good teacher at the tertiary level without being actively engaged in research. There is no empirical evidence for this. You can't be a good teacher without keeping up with your subject but that's another matter altogether.

Implementing a policy of this kind would save time and money.

Under current funding arrangements, staff across the sector spend a great deal of time writing grant applications that mostly won't succeed. If a significant fraction of the staff in tertiary institutions - a different fraction at different universities - did not have the tedious and labour-intensive task of applying for research grants as part of their job description, they could spend more time teaching the subject they love and keeping up to date with it.

The institutions that employ them could save a great deal of money by reducing the size of their research offices. The consequent drop in grant applications to the Australian Research Council (ARC) would allow it to fund a higher percentage of applications and at a more realistic level. The success level for Discovery Grants hovers around 25% and is only as high as that because the ARC chronically under-funds.

What else might be done? It is hard to take seriously the (tongue in cheek?) suggestion being made in some quarters that amalgamating Melbourne and Monash, or Sydney and New South Wales, is the way to go. Size as such isn't the key to getting a high ranking.

Princeton, Cambridge and Caltech, for example, each have far fewer undergraduates than Monash.

A more promising suggestion, by Professor Richard Larkins, vice-chancellor of Monash University, is to allow universities the option of setting higher fees.

This goes against Labor ideology but the better our universities, the more a degree from them is worth. Why not ask those who benefit to make a somewhat bigger contribution? It is hard to see any inequity in this.

We are in the country of hard choices as far as university funding goes and a sensible redistribution of research funding combined with the option for each university of a moderate increase in fees may well be the best we can get.

Frank Jackson is a former director of the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University, holds a fractional research chair at La Trobe University and is a visiting professor at ANU and Princeton.