Research and teaching – what do we actually want Australian universities to do?

There’s renewed debate around whether universities need to specialise in research or teaching. University image from www.shutterstock.com

“We must give universities more freedom to focus on what they are good at… If that means that some universities want to focus significantly more on teaching, then they should confidently do so… Government policy should enable specialisation, not discourage it.” Shadow education minister, Christopher Pyne, 30 April 2013

Shadow education minister Christopher Pyne’s call this week for greater freedom for specialisation raises some thorny questions about what it is we want universities and other higher education providers to do.

Visit an Australian university campus and you will see a lot going on. Most universities teach, train professionals and offer generalist education. But they also undertake research (basic and applied), work with business, government and non-profit organisations, as well as having deep connections to the communities they serve.

None of these elements work in isolation, one part of the universities activities will often inform and influence other parts. And of course, the link between teaching and research in many universities (often referred to as the teaching-research nexus) is strong. In fact, the Australian definition of a university in part requires institutions to link these two areas together.

And there are many arguments for doing so, as long as academics have adequate time and resources to do both. Students can benefit from their teacher’s research experience and be exposed to the latest research. They can witness an active research culture and on occasion be offered the chance for involvement in research projects.

These and similar arguments are commonly accepted and highly persuasive.

Nonetheless, seeing the benefit in teaching and research together does not mean that some specialisation cannot also be beneficial. Specialisation can help develop excellence in a field. It can also avoid institutions becoming the proverbial “Jack of all trades, master of none”.

There are also different ways that universities can specialise. For example, this might be in the form of some universities focusing on excellence in teaching, as Pyne notes. Conversely, it might be where other universities consolidate their offerings in teaching and research to a narrower set of disciplines – such as science and technology.

So why at present are institutions that focus on teaching rare in Australia? There are different answers depending on whom you ask, from those who hold firm views about what it is to be an academic and the need for “live” research, to the role of the current definition of a university, to the importance of the teaching and research nexus.

But a proposal for teaching focused universities may also touch a raw nerve in Australian higher education. This revolves around the challenging issue of perceived prestige for researchers and their institutions that follow a strong research effort. While research prestige is often on show (most university rankings pay close heed to research output), it can falsely demote much else that universities do – not the least of which is teaching and community engagement.

An Australian university may need to engage in research, but it is certainly possible to be a prestigious higher education institution without an exclusive research focus.

The international experience is instructive. For example, the United States has highly regarded institutions called liberal arts colleges that pride themselves on undergraduate teaching. Many are prestigious and attractive to students, such as the “Little Ivies”. Clearly, it is possible to offer excellent higher education through generalist teaching at an undergraduate level.

Most Australian universities have a comprehensive offering, but this is not the case with numerous leading institutions worldwide. There are many examples of international universities and colleges that have a strong but narrow disciplinary focuses, from technical universities to world leading institutions that do not teach major disciplines.

Princeton University is a case in point. It is sometimes said that Princeton law school enjoys a great reputation. And there are certainly many who mention it – from US senators to practising lawyers. Inconveniently, Princeton has not had a law school since 1852. Despite this absence, few would argue that Princeton is not a world leading institution.

There have been previous attempts to develop specialist institutions in Australia. For instance, one aim of the reforms initiated by minister John Dawkins in 1987 was for universities to have greater freedom to specialise.

Few would argue that the changes were wholly successful in this regard. Before Dawkins, some universities that had narrow missions at their inception have gained a more comprehensive focus over time. For example, the University of New South Wales began life as the New South Wales University of Technology in 1949.

Christopher Pyne’s suggestion to allow for greater specialisation brings with it some important questions, even without touching on what technology and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) might bring.

Nonetheless, the debate around specialisation continues to be one worth having. Especially at a time when Australians are asking what they want their higher education institutions to be and do.