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Sink or swim? Australian universities in the next decade

The world is in a state of transition. The Indian and Chinese economies continue to grow at around 9 and 10 per cent respectively each year, while the North Atlantic economies - the 20th century epicentre…

Australian universities must raise their game to compete in the global education market. Flickr/Reality-check

The world is in a state of transition.

The Indian and Chinese economies continue to grow at around 9 and 10 per cent respectively each year, while the North Atlantic economies - the 20th century epicentre of commercial and strategic influence – appear locked in a cyclical battle to stave off recession.

Irrespective of debates around whether the transition means the “dawn” of this or the “end” of that – one thing is certain:

The global environment on all fronts is more competitive than ever before.

For Australian universities this competitive environment presents challenges and opportunities in equal measure.

Research in Asia

From a research perspective we will soon see universities in Asia exceed those from all of Europe and North America in terms of academic output.

This brings us physically closer to the main playing field in the research game, but it also means we have to play to a higher standard in order to compete.

In education we have the challenge of meeting demand while ensuring quality as the massification of higher education continues, bringing greater knowledge and professional capability to a bigger proportion of our people.

There is also considerable pressure being brought to bear by the high Australian dollar. Like all exporters the Australian higher education system is feeling the pinch as it becomes more and more expensive for international students to pay for an Australian university education.

Add to this the aggressive position being taken by European and North American institutions in the international student marketplace, and it is clear that we’ve got a significant task ahead of us.

Despite this, I strongly believe that Australian universities can and will flourish in this environment – but we do not have the latitude for complacency and error that have characterised our performance in the past.

Move away from tradition

In order to meet the challenges we currently face and - at the same time - set a foundation that will enable us to fully realise the opportunities that will present in the coming decade and beyond, there a number of specific things we need to start doing differently.

Firstly, we need to address our over emphasis on the traditional university model.

Universities have a tendency to harp back to a golden age that never was – what I refer to as the Oxford/Cambridge Syndrome.

Earlier Australian universities were established with the aim of emulating Oxford and Cambridge.

The problem with this is, that while we’ve done well, we have never had the population pool or the level of academic strength to approach those institutions in terms of academic output or international reputation.

It therefore makes little sense for the majority of Australian institutions to attempt to reach a model that is both unachievable and, in many ways, anachronistic.

Oxford and Cambridge themselves certainly aren’t aspiring to be what they were 20 years ago - much less 100 years ago – so why should we?

We need to abandon this stance, clearly and emphatically as a final rejection of a form of academic colonialism because the game is changing.

A changing world

People who think that the education and research essentials of universities are basically the same as they were 20 years ago have got the basics wrong.

The world is different, it is more global, there is a greater freedom of movement of expertise, ideas and capital than ever before.

Universities operate not just within a regional but in an international intellectual market and the information milieu in which we are operating is in a state of transition – just as the rest of the world is.

How we understand that change and how we adapt to it - and where possible guide it - will be crucial factors in our destiny as a university sector in a small country.

As part of this rethink it is vital that we fully embrace the concepts of industry partnership and collaboration.

A recent article in the International Herald Tribune cites a number of examples where business schools from Britain, North America, China and India are forming alliances to expand their reach and add a crucial international element to the courses they deliver.

Australian universities must move quickly to adopt a similar approach.

Otherwise not only will we miss out on opportunities, but we also risk our current position in the market.

Strategic effort

We need to be far more strategic in how we focus our effort.

It seems that all Australian universities aspire to be research intensive – that is, we’re all trying to be the University of Michigan, or the University of Toronto.

Several Australian universities - indeed most if not all Group of Eight - have the potential to play at this level and indeed we have been doing so for many decades.

The number of Australian Nobel Prize winners and the fact that many of our institutions populate the top 1 per cent - or first 300 – of the international ranking scales is testimony to that.

But when we step back and look at this more closely, issues do emerge.

The University of Michigan has annual research funding of around $800 million - far in excess of any Australian university.

Now I believe Australia achieves similar levels of excellence but only in a handful of universities.

We need to focus our research efforts into those institutions best placed to compete for and augment the research funding base, not only here in Australia, but internationally.

While we will continue to have some appeal to Europe and North America, the outstanding opportunities for us lie in Asia specifically China, India and South East Asia.

China and India are emerging as absolute academic powerhouses and we must forge and maintain very close academic ties with institutions in those countries.

We must work to establish a shared talent pool in the same way that European and North American universities do.

There are many ways of approaching this and indeed much work is underway.

The strategy for Monash University is to develop in-country, post-graduate training and research institutions with both Indian and Chinese partner universities that also include collaboration with local industry.

This will be vitally important for us in the coming period.

Generational change

We need to accept that today’s young people are different and tomorrow’s will be different again.

Why do we have such difficulty accepting that a young adult living today in the era of the internet who has never known anything else, has a mindset and a set of expectations that radically differ to those that people now in their 60s had as young people?

This kind of myopia has huge implications for how education is offered and delivered.

For example, sometimes you hear people of a certain age advocate with great conviction for the importance of the one-on-one relationship, the importance of small tutorial groups and the importance of mentorship.

While these things are important, the level of expectation young people have around these issues are very different today than they were 15 years ago and will be different again 15 and 20 years into the future.

We cannot be afraid of asking young people what they want, instead of assuming the way it was for us is best.

The stakes are far too high for that.

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.

Obsession with rankings

We must not get overly obsessed with rankings.

We are currently focussed heavily on a range of international university ranking tables which all use different methodologies and can deliver considerably varied outcomes as a result.

We tend to take them at face value and to make the most of any favourable publicity opportunities that emerge.

What is not fully acknowledged however is the fact that rankings are all flawed to varying extents – and any institution that bases its strategic policy on them is more than misguided.

Rankings are a lot like political polling and research in this respect – they can be a useful indicator of performance and add a sense of sporting competition to media coverage, but trouble emerges if they become the central motivator of decision makers.

Just as a politician runs into trouble if the pollster is allowed to write policy, we too must mitigate against the tail wagging the dog in this sense.

Having said this, there is little doubt that the methodology in university rankings will improve dramatically over the next ten years.

We will identify more robust ways of measuring impact and scientific output and of integrating education quality in the rankings.

Engagement with industry and society at large will also be more quantifiable – and this will be very important.

Core values

Good research and good education will see us through come what may.

We’ve got to get better at marketing our value to the community.

Australian universities are often felt to be held in low esteem by the general public and almost uniformly by politicians.

While both major parties agree that universities are important they feel higher education and research is, to put it simply, not that high on the voters list of priorities.

University leaders and vice-chancellors tend to accept this and say that this is the way it is.

Well that doesn’t have to be the case.

We must take much more responsibility for getting the message out to the public at large as to how important universities are – in particularly in regard to the role research and education play in driving an innovative economy.

This should be repeated relentlessly across the sector.

It is an area where all universities should agree and a powerful message of this type will surely resonate with an Australian community which intrinsically values excellence.

The way ahead

It is clear that the world is facing challenges the likes of which it has not seen for 100 years. It is also clear that a robust university sector will be a critical part of dealing with these challenges.

For us, positioning ourselves as not only universities of Australia, but universities of the region through strong genuine partnerships – particularly in China and India – must be our focus in next decade.

If we can manage this, the potential for our graduates, staff, industry partners and the wider community is limitless.

This is the essence of the “sink or swim question”.

It is my view that we can swim – fast and well - but it will require wholesale changes to the way we do things.

  • Moving on from the traditional university ideal;

  • Strategically engaging our region and the wider world;

  • Valuing the difference of today’s young people;

  • Taking a measured approach to rankings; and

  • Communicating the value of higher education to the wider public….

………are good places to start.

This is an edited transcript of Ed Byrne’s annual address delivered to business and education leaders at the Monash University Law Chambers tonight.