Education Minister Christopher Pyne is seeking to reintroduce legislation to uncap university fees. This could have a negative impact on collaborations between universities, as well as partnerships of universities with other sectors such as non-government organisations (NGOs), philanthropic organisations and business.
Currently, universities collaborate with one another and with other sectors in myriad ways, all of which are beneficial to the institutions involved and often the wider public. Greater competition through deregulation could discourage such collaborations, as universities would be more likely to jealously guard their industry links, other partnerships and “market share”.
The value of partnerships
As someone who has worked in corporate, government and nonprofit sectors, I returned to academia three years ago with an “outsider’s view” of higher education. This perspective is more nuanced and hopeful than the widely held view that universities are closed institutions.
While this “Ivory Tower” stereotype is not without foundation, universities throughout the country are increasingly aware of the importance of collaboration with other sectors and each other for a number of reasons.
First, in a fluid and uncertain labour market, universities, like the one for which I work, are continuously seeking to improve the employability of graduates. Closer links with employers are seen to be one way of doing this.
Second, funding from traditional government sources, such as the Australian Research Council, is becoming more scarce both in Australia and throughout the world. Universities must increasingly seek to fund their research through other means, such as philanthropic, NGO and government partnerships and sources.
Third, there is growing recognition of the inherent benefits of working with external partners because of the wealth of knowledge they have to offer beyond money. These include experience, capabilities and access to the “coalface” of a given area of need.
Several years ago I was an executive at the Foundation for Young Australians, a nonprofit organisation seeking to improve the wellbeing of young people. The foundation worked in collaboration with the University of Melbourne to produce an annual report entitled How Young People are Faring.
This snapshot of youth transitions from school to work was widely cited and used by governments, media and other organisations working to improve the life outcomes of young people. Such a report and its benefits would not be possible without the partnership.
As an academic today, I work in a partnership between Monash University, Deakin University and Western Sydney University looking at technology and young people’s wellbeing. Part of this project includes informing, and actively working within, a Technology and Wellbeing Roundtable.
Meeting since 2007, this community has included dozens of organisations from corporate, nonprofit and government sectors with an investment in promoting the positive use of technology for young people’s health and wellbeing. Several formal partnerships have been formed as a result of the roundtable.
In what ways does competition damage the relationships?
Such an arrangement might be less likely to occur in a deregulated system. It is not difficult to imagine a heightened condition of competition, in which prized relations with external partners are hoarded to gain financial benefit and prestige.
This already takes place. But by intensifying competition, deregulation could further “privitise” the work of universities at the expense of open collaboration and potential public benefit.
Within this market, some universities could form “strategic” alliances to gain market share. This would privilege those universities with existing relationships and/or prestige to the exclusion of other institutions - all of which arguably serve the same wider public educational, social, cultural and economic purposes.
This would likely favour the Group of Eight universities. The reality is that most universities have particular areas of strength and collaborate across boundaries, disciplines and sectors in some way. Despite this, less “prestigious” universities with less recognisable “brands” and fewer resources might struggle in the new marketplace and be denied the benefits of collaboration.
While “strategic” alliances also currently take place, exclusion and inequities could consequently be intensified between universities given the high stakes of declining government investment combined with competition for “market share”.
With this, the kind of openness that currently exists in arrangements like the roundtable above could also be compromised. Privatisation has wider implications for openness and transparency that strike at the very heart of the public purposes of higher education.
Collaboration needs to be encouraged rather than inhibited
There are signs that universities are recognising their key role in Australia’s future lies in more outward-looking and collaborative approaches, with the public benefit kept firmly in sight.
Collaboration, not competition, is key to leveraging the social, cultural and economic benefits of our higher education sector.
Better metrics are also needed to measure impact and value beyond the citations of academic peers and university rankings. Such measures should take account of the impact of the kinds of collaboration outlined above.
But measures to introduce deregulation will promote competition between universities, which risks running counter to the spirit of collaboration, while conceivably distorting their impact and its measurement.
Student fees could be a new source of research funding in a deregulated market, but at what ultimate cost? And to whom?
Intensifying competition through deregulation could not only limit access to some students, it could also limit incentives and opportunities for universities to work together and with other sectors to address the big challenges.