The question of where universities are heading is more relevant today than it has ever been before. To say universities in Australia are undergoing a crisis of identity is an exaggeration but they are facing a dilemma. The fundamental question universities are asking themselves is “what sort of university do we want to be?” While this is a question that universities will wish to answer themselves in light of their particular circumstances, increasingly government funding authorities are demanding a greater role in the decision making process.
Dr Brendan Nelson’s recent restatement of his belief that there should be “teaching only” universities illustrates this and is creating a very real debate throughout the sector about the funding and intensity of research undertaken by universities. This poses a challenge for universities with their traditional independence of operation, and their position that research and learning are integrally linked. Universities not only transmit knowledge, they also refine existing knowledge and develop new knowledge and ideas. Dr Nelson’s stance has the potential to alter these dynamics, shifting the power of self-determination away from universities.
Dr Nelson’s statements raise the question as to whether or not an institution which teaches contemporary knowledge, but which does not expand it substantially or create new knowledge, can be classified as a university. Removing one of the fundamental criteria of a university - that each must conduct its own research - throws into question the identity of those institutions which choose to become teaching only.
A teaching only institution would certainly be an important entity, providing education, extending the minds of those who study and work within it, and being of great value to the community, but could we consider it to truly be a university? Perhaps we might better call it a college or some other euphemism and reserve the term “university” for institutions of higher learning which also create, innovate and substantially add to our knowledge base - that is, institutions which simultaneously teach and research. The notion of teaching only universities, if logically continued, will return Australia to the pre-Dawkins binary system of education, which we began to move away from in the 1980s. The two-tiered system that will emerge is not desirable. If we do go down this pathway, it will be against the current global trend.
I believe the question should not be whether universities are research focused or teaching only institutions - all universities should research. The real question is to what extent this should happen. Rather than an either/or proposition, I prefer a scenario where some universities are research intensive but still teach, while others are teaching intensive but retain a core research component, most probably into specific research areas of high impact and importance. Research would be a common characteristic - the extent to which the research was undertaken would be the point of difference. Both approaches are valid and could play an important role within the higher education sector. The majority of UK institutions, for example, which carry the title “university”, recognise that research is a core aspect of their operations and mission.
The development and transfer of knowledge and research are inextricably linked. Research generates new ideas and challenges conventional modes of thinking. Both the environment in which research is being conducted and the way in which research is being conducted are changing.
So too is the environment in which universities operate. It is increasingly complex, particularly as institutions nationwide, both public and private, must now consider themselves within a global context. It is no longer acceptable for institutions to define themselves solely within the confines of the local or national arena. Globalisation is a significant contributing factor which universities must consider when defining and developing their profile. Arguably the fundamental role of universities as education providers will not change, but how they achieve this and in what environment they do so will alter.
Internationally, universities are becoming increasingly focused on research-oriented partnerships. These partnerships - between universities and between universities and government, industry, business and professional groupings - are essential for any university to be influential and effective. As individual countries recognise the fundamental importance of new knowledge and its function to create economic development, to expand and to enrich communities, they require their universities to be the engine rooms for research: predominantly in close collaboration with other relevant bodies, especially industry and government itself. It is within universities that young people are exposed to scholarship, to the need to think critically and strategically, and to the importance of research and innovation to their own lives and to society.
The key to research is strong collaboration.
Co-operative Research Centres, which have developed so successfully in recent years, are a good example of collaborative relationships. Collaboration allows for significant research on major issues, ensures international recognition, may be commercially successful and often leads to other innovative projects and ideas. Such relationships extend not only beyond state boundaries, but facilitate and encourage international co-operation, especially to address problems of major global impact.
Such collaboration has given rise to “knowledge hubs” or “clusters” as a means of enhancing research capability and competitiveness. Knowledge hubs create a critical mass of knowledge, linking education, training and research organisations, whereby each partner contributes a particular field of expertise to the hub. Increasingly university research profiles are being defined in part by their participation in knowledge hubs. Collaboration between universities with diverse student profiles is becoming increasingly common with individual strengths from each combining to form a strong knowledge base. Furthermore, the knowledge hubs also facilitate the creation of new models for structural links and allow the sharing of resources. The development of the Minerals and Energy Precinct in Waterford in Western Australia is a leading example of effective collaboration between the State Government, the CSIRO and Western Australian universities.
One danger in creating teaching only institutions is that important existing fields of research expertise will be removed from institutions which contribute to collaborative research partnerships in small yet specific fields.
A major driver of collaboration is provided by financial incentives from government and industry. While the Government has made a start and has significantly boosted the investment in research and development in Australia through Backing Australia’s Ability 1 (BAA-1) and maintained that investment in BAA-2, increased investment is still required to substantially boost the amount of funding into research as a percentage of GDP. Industry in particular needs to greatly increase its investment into research and development. It is simply not doing enough to actively boost this investment. Government action such as tax system changes and support schemes could encourage investment, so too the enticement of research facilities to Australia.
The way ahead for all nations has to be based simultaneously upon collaboration and competitiveness. For universities to play their part they need to be very well connected, substantially funded, and competitively able with the best staff and students possible. To do this universities must become more efficient, probably larger (why universities are not subject to more mergers, joint ventures and even take-overs is a mystery to me) and while focused on the global picture, respond rapidly and appropriately to their local and regional environment. It is a big ask, but these are big problems. (How do we become more efficient? How do we grow?) And while the cost is large, the potential returns are huge.