Expert reactions to VC’s call to shake up Aussie universities

New England no more: Ed Byrne has called for Australian universities to depart from tradition and engage strongly with Asia. Pictured is the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China. Flickr/drs2biz.

Australian universities are often “held in low esteem” and will “sink or swim” in a hyper-competitive, globalised era where regional engagement is essential, said Ed Byrne, Monash University’s Vice-Chancellor, in Wednesday night’s annual address to business and education leaders at the Monash University Law Chambers.

Professor Byrne, a neuroscientist, said that it is time to finally reject a heritage of “academic colonialism”, with the original attempts to emulate Oxford and Cambridge anachronistic and doomed to failure.

Experts respond below.


An Oxford lecture room: beyond Australia and irrelevant? Flickr/jisc_infonet

Joel Spencer, PhD candidate (with experience as an international education manager), RMIT University

Monash VC Ed Byrne’s speech is mostly clear on the big vision, and hints at a few possible changes that might drag Australian universities into the new century. It is nothing new to note the shift in the global centre of strategic and economic power to Asia. It is nothing new to call for universities to engage with this shift, evolve, and make greater efforts to garner community support. This is all worthy and great, even grand.

But like many of these kinds of broad statements it is pretty light when it comes to practical detail. There is a hinted call for the abandonment of support for small tutorials, a plea for universities to avoid the white line fever engendered by rankings, and a nod to the idea of engaging with our (young) customers. But where are the solid programmable changes? One can read this speech and validly go away asking, “So what is it he wants us to actually do to really become the change he is talking about?”

It is in trying to answer this question that one comes to the central problem of sectoral design, a problem Ed Byrne does not really address, but which must be overcome if anything like his vision is ever to be implemented.

So for example here are two practical steps universities could take to help achieve the kind of sector Ed Byrne is describing.

Idea 1: Encourage students to submit work in a language other than their own. Let’s give a 10% bonus to any student who submits a piece of work in a language other than their mother tongue, and allow all students to submit in any of say, ten languages. If a Chinese student has trouble writing in English, let them submit in Mandarin. If a native Australian student wants an extra 10%, let them submit in Korean. In becoming a globally connected sector, let’s break the dominance of English in our institutions. This would be a massive and practical step toward engaging strategically with our region. We would need to hire more foreign academics who could assess work in other languages, strengthening our global connectedness. More of our students would graduate with greater fluency in a range of languages, enabling them to better go forth and succeed in the new world.

Idea 2: Break course silos. Sure we should let funding follow the student to the institution. But what about we do it between individual units in courses? Let a student study Ethics 1 at Monash, Politics 2B at La Trobe, and Urban Design 3C at RMIT. Let the funding follow the student to the unit. This approach would have an immediate effect in allowing universities to specialise. Nearly all the protestations against such a system would have at their heart the aim of protecting the ‘traditional’ institution. But if we want to move away from this ‘traditional university ideal’ the first thing we have to do is relieve the castles of their walls. Universities are just collections of people, buildings and ideas, usually contrived into a system that ensures ‘benefits’ flow in the direction of the people who design that system. Our new century, our new technologies, are about breaking that internal institutional nexus. Let the students ignore the walls, let them go wherever the knowledge they desire resides. In doing so new models will emerge. We may not know exactly what they will look like, but the embracing of that kind of uncertainty is itself of central importance to engaging with the new world.

Both of these ideas, if implemented, would go a long way to realising the kind of vision Ed Byrne outlines in his speech. But it is one thing to describe a vision, it is another thing altogether to actually bring it into being. Unless further and deeper changes are made to the sector as a whole, and by this I mean specifically a wholesale deregulation of the sector, the sector will not change.

The problem is none of our current institutions could implement such changes because such changes go to the heart of what it is to be the kind of institutions they are. At the same time, the policy settings are such that it is virtually impossible for any new forms of institutions (forms that might be able to implement such ideas) to arise.

Those whose interests are served by the maintenance of the status quo are simply too powerful to overcome in the current regulatory environment, and the above two ideas could not be implemented until those interests are removed. Universities are Institutions, and by their very nature they are populated by people who have designed and benefit by the structures that Institution practices. Unless the Interests that are vested in maintaining the current shape of the sector are confronted and broken, these proposed changes are unlikely to be achievable, and the grand aims of Ed Byrne’s vision will remain merely words echoing around a rapidly emptying chamber.

It is in this conflict that the problem of shaping the future really resides. Until the sector is freed from its current restrictive policy frameworks, no vision approaching the one Ed Byrne wishes to inculcate can be brought into being. It is interesting that Ed Byrne did not address this central problem in his speech.

Gavin Moodie, Policy Advisor, Governance and Planning, RMIT University

Much of Byrne’s talk is based on premises which are false or at best only half true.

For example, his claim that “Earlier Australian universities were established with the aim of emulating Oxford and Cambridge” is false - they were modelled on Scottish universities which at the time gave much more emphasis to professional education than Oxbridge. Neither do I think that anyone seriously argues that Australian universities should try to emulate Oxbridge’s individual tutorials for undergraduates.

Byrne asserts “The fact is people now go through two, three or even four careers in the course of a single working life – and this fundamentally alters the tertiary professional proposition.” Again, this is not a fact; it is a myth disproved by several studies, most recently by Serena Yu from the University of Sydney’s Workplace Research Centre analysing 9 years of the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia longitudinal survey. Graduates’ career trajectories have important implications for their education, but not in the way implied by Byrne.

Byrne also makes the common mistake of asserting that research funding and effort must be concentrated by institution, when the evidence suggests that any concentration should be by research team or centre. Indeed, even most ‘research intensive’ universities concentrate resources internally on some teams and not others. Many of Australia’s top research teams may be in the research intensive universities, but there is no ground of principle or practice which says they should all be in only research intensive universities. Indeed, there are strong public policy grounds for ensuring that most if not all universities have at least some of Australia’s top research teams.

I agree that it would be desirable for Australian universities to build strong partnerships with universities in their region, particularly in China and India. But I think that would be agreed by most in Australian universities. Many Australian universities have established agreements with universities in the region including China and India and are actively developing those relationships into what they hope to be strong partnerships.

However, I don’t agree with any implication that a failure to build strong partnerships with universities in the region will result in Australian higher education ‘sinking’ or necessarily falling behind in research or education. Most Australian universities do not have strong partnerships with US universities which have been the intellectual powerhouses of the last 50 years, yet Australian universities and Australian research is strong.

Most international research links are between individual researchers and many are between research teams - very few are between whole institutions. Links between institutions tend to be peripheral to their research and teaching. As in other parts of his piece, Byrne’s analysis is at the institutional level when it should be at the level of school, team and individual.

Monash Vice-Chancellor Ed Byrne responds to Gavin Moodie’s comments:

It’s really good to get very positive and constructive debate around this type of issue and when one is pushing the boundaries a bit in academic life it’s not expected that people agree, and indeed if everybody agreed we wouldn’t be having the right type of debate. There’s unlikely to be significant disagreement between Gavin’s position and mine in so far as the points I was making were as follows:

With regard to the example of Oxford and Cambridge, it wasn’t meant to be a literal example – talking about one-on-one tutorials, etcetera – but simply an analogy of a rather conservative way of thinking about tutorials and personal contact in a physical sense as being at the heart of the university experience. And the point was while that will continue to be important, more varied and state-of-the-art ways of giving an equal if not better educational experience will emerge. So the connect to Oxford and Cambridge was not meant to be literal but more an analogy around a particular way of thinking.

The second point is that when I talked about people having three or four careers I wasn’t talking about what people have done in the past, where to have two careers is still unusual, although more and more have it. I was making a projection about what people are likely to be doing in the future in a global and better-interconnected world, and that is speculative. There’s no thought that it pertains to now, because of course I’m making a prediction as to what might happen over the next 50 years, and I think Gavin misunderstood that.

Thirdly, the point that Gavin made about research being centred around very strong groups or departments or centres rather than geographically in a small number of institutions I actually agree with completely and I think I said that in my speech. The point I’m making is that in those areas, in a country of our size, we can’t afford to have very large numbers in most fields because of our limited intellectual and resource capital. So regardless of whether the centres tend to cluster around a small number of small institutions or whether they’re spread more widely, I totally agree that the unit we should be looking at is the aggregate of excellence in an individual centre or discipline rather than an overall institution.

Dr Bronwen Dalton, Senior Lecturer, Management, University of Technology, Sydney

Australian higher education is about to be hit be some big changes that, as Professor Byrne says, will bring challenges and opportunities. But I am not sure we are equipped for the challenges. This is because, compared to most of our international competitors, Australia has an Achilles heel - Australia invests a lower percentage of its GDP in education than any other OECD nation. The Economist recently marvelled at Australia’s economic health but also gave a stark warning - we either invest the profits from the mining boom in education NOW or when markets swing away from commodities (as markets do) we will have little to show for our good economic run and our education system will continue to fall behind.

As Australian universities are forced to do more with less and compete with more generously publically funded international competitors, our VCs understandably are on a constant search for stratagems that make the uni biz more cost-effective. This has made the Australian higher education sector more engaged with industry, more commercial, etc, than many of the major universities - particularly in Europe and Britain. So in these aspects we are in many ways ahead of the pack.

Now some are pitching the benefits of making some universities, or positions within universities, teaching only - often in arguments made by the Group of Eight that this shift should apply to the rest of the sector (not them). Still, many non-Go8 universities are running with it and already some unis are dressing up teaching only positions with titles like “education leadership roles”; well, North Korea is a Workers Paradise (research positions are unlikely to need such a lexical makeover). I wonder if teaching-only will remain a matter of choice or lock one into a career of heavy workloads. Even those that may prefer teaching or would normally take on greater teaching hours may rush for the research exit - in fear that teaching-only will damage their career prospects. Still, it might work if universities somehow demonstrate that promotion is equally tied to either research or teaching performance. Otherwise teaching-only positions or universities could promote further casualisation, undermine collegiality, broaden pay differentials and erode the nexus between research and teaching.

Andrew Norton, Program Director, Higher Education, Grattan Institute

Universities are sensitive to criticism, but compared to other public institutions they have a good image. An ANU Poll in 2008 found that 70 per cent of Australians believed that universities were doing an ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ job. Only 46 per cent of respondents to the same poll gave public schools a similar endorsement. There is a little unmet demand for higher education, but no crisis of crowded hospital emergency rooms or long delays for surgery. Universities think they get a raw deal with public funding, but if so they are victims of their own success compared to other providers of government-supported services. The public do not think there is a major higher education problem to be fixed. While as Professor Byrne’s speech points out there are always things universities can do better, and always changes at home and abroad to which they will have to adapt, the long-term record of universities in meeting public expectations has been quite good. They have absorbed large numbers of new domestic students, created a major international student industry, improved student satisfaction with teaching, improved industry engagement with more applied research, and significantly increased total research output. They have been doing what Professor Byrne says they should be doing, and need to keep doing it.

Comments are welcome below.