Menu Close

Are Australian universities “seldom excellent”? The experts respond

Are Australian universities meeting their potential?

“Australia’s universities, like its wine, are decent and dependable, but seldom excellent.”

So said The Economist magazine, in a piece published online.

We asked Australian tertiary education experts to respond:

A spokesperson for Tertiary Education Minister, Chris Evans

The Economist is sadly misinformed both about Australian wine and our universities. Australian wine, and especially Western Australian wine, is among the best in the world.

And the fact that so many international students choose to come to Australia to study – notwithstanding the state of the dollar – shows that the benefits of an Australian university education continue to be valued internationally.

And that’s to say nothing of the world class research that our universities turn out.

Professor Ed Byrne, Vice Chancellor, Monash University.

Those comments may have been true in the past, quite some years ago. But they are now totally historical. The Australian university system is very vibrant. We are going forward in leaps and bounds in teaching, research and innovation.

Morale is high across the sector, we have the support of the federal government and we have people coming here, both students and academics, from all over the world.

The Australian university system has never been in better shape. For many positions that we advertise we have stellar applicants from across the globe.

The comment is historical only and shows a lack of familiarity with the really exciting events in the Australian university sector in recent times.

The tertiary sector can always do with more money and funds are tight but we have the support of federal government, which met pretty much every commitment it made made in the recent budget. Contrast that to the UK where university funding is being cut in a major way.

The sector was delighted with the funding we got in the recent budget. It included full funding of uncapping and the best indexation that we have had for many years, probably a full percentage point higher than many VCs had expected. It included the fulfillment of a promise to increase research infrastructure funding.

Contrast that to the UK, where the recent budget was dismal.

Professor Simon Marginson, Centre for the Study of Higher Education, The University of Melbourne.

It’s absolutely spot on. It’s a really good piece. I hope a lot of people read it.

Australia spends less in public funding on universities than almost every other country in the OECD. Australia spends 0.7% of GDP and the OECD average is 1.1% of GDP.

We take on a lot of international students but they don’t add to the total teaching and research capacity, it goes back into the running of the business.

There’s been no increase in Australian Research Council funding for about 10 years. There was a major report in 2001 which led to a doubling of research funding over the next four years but there has been nothing since then.

We’ve been swamped by every other university in Asia pouring money into research in the last decade. We are going to be outstripped by the region. Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Korea are really pouring money in. They know it’s about money. You get what you pay for.

The Americans of course have probably overfunded their university sector. They are at 2.6% of GDP, its higher than anyone else in the world.

In Australia, total student fees are amongst the highest in the world – even the HECS places. In a lot of Europe they pay $500 or $1500 per year. It’s quite different.

We have really struggled to realise our potential. We could have universities as good as Canada. The University of Toronto is outperforming ANU on research. We could do as well as that if we were funded properly. We are as rich as Canada now.

We are a good place to live. Researchers say, ‘I’d like to live in Australia but there’s no funding, there’s no opportunity.’ We could attract high quality people if we funded research infrastructure properly.

The University of Toronto is in the top 20 in the world. ANU is number 56 and the University of Melbourne is 62 and they are the best two we have. Sydney is in the top 100.

It really is just about investment. That’s what the article is saying – the government has to get serious about those things. Universities are a long term thing. You put money into research now and it shows itself in 15 years.

The Australian political culture has a small vision, it seems smaller than ever right now and universities are suffering because of that.

If you put another $500m into research you’d make an enormous difference, whereas that’s a drop in the ocean in the transport sector.

Dr Glenn Withers AO, Chief Executive, Universities Australia

The Economist is right in emphasising the achievements of Australia. It has delivered more than most in creating a country that is fair, prosperous and free. But, as ever, there is much more that can be done and, The Economist is also right in saying that the nation’s universities are a key to this happening.

Economic studies certainly demonstrate, by the methods appealing to economists and sometimes to governments, that full implementation of the (Bradley) Higher Education Review recommendations alone would pay off in productivity and employment by as much or more than the whole of the COAG productivity reform agenda, with far less cost and political pain. And that is before we factor in the additional social opportunity gains and environmental and cultural benefits and the even spread of these pay-offs across Australia.

Yet the Economist does seem to underestimate the real quality of the Australian universities currently, just as it does Australian wine. The Lisbon Council went beyond individual university rankings and ranked higher education systems - and guess which country ranked first? Australia. And we are right now in the throes of reforming the system further with improved regulatory arrangements and review of base funding. If we get these right we underpin national progress even more, and avoid slipping back as has indeed been happening.

Individual universities nevertheless still do rather well. By the Times world rankings we have five universities in the top 50. By the new QS discipline rankings we have universities in the global top ten in many fields. By the Government’s ERA rankings, we are at world level or better across 60% of our research activity. And by any of these rankings, imperfect as they can be, we consistently have a higher share of our universities in the top 100-500 than any other country. We have twice as many universities in the top University 500 as there are Australian businesses in the Fortune Global 500.

This platform should be built on to sustain and enhance the national and higher education achievement, both across the board and in our very top achievers. We actually do not have to choose between support for some or all universities as the return on investment is there for both approaches. A wave of investment can lift all. We can then ensure a new national balance by better combining the luck of natural bounty with the even greater skills and smarts of our people.

John Dewar, Provost, The University of Melbourne

It is not true that excellence is a rare quality in Australian higher education. The growing number of world university rankings show that Australia has more than its fair share of world-class institutions when measured against Australia’s share of global GDP. The University of Melbourne, for example, is consistently ranked in the top 50 in the world, one of the top 20 outside the USA, and is the fastest rising university in the world on the trusted Shanghai Jiao Tong rank of world Universities.

The recent ERA analysis of research quality, which used international benchmarks of research excellence, showed that many Australian universities have areas of strength comparable to the best in the world; the global rankings, such as those currently being produced by the Times Higher Education, show the same pattern. The comparison with Australian wine is apt - we have great quality across the board, with many examples that are comparable to the best in the world.

These achievements are all the more remarkable given Australia’s historically low levels of public investment in its higher education sector.

The biggest challenge confronting the Australian sector is to ensure that the quality assurance and regulatory regime now being introduced through the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Association (TEQSA) promotes rather than constrains the global competitiveness of Australia’s higher education sector.

There is an egalitarian strain in Australian higher education policy that may not always sit comfortably with the idea that Australia can and should sustain a small number of world-class universities. Yet the pragmatism of Australian political culture has ensured universities that have self-consciously pursued a strategy of competing with the world’s best, such as the University of Melbourne, have been supported and have flourished. This has been because of the responsiveness of political leaders and senior public servants to the specific needs of individual universities. It would be a tragedy if this pragmatic flexibility were lost in the transition to a more independent and arms length regime of quality assurance and standard setting.

The recent experience of the revision of the Australian Qualifications Framework is a case in point. There was a real risk at various stages in that process that Australia’s universities would be prevented from using degree titles that are well established in other parts of the world. Only political intervention prevented a disastrous outcome. We must hope that those who take the reins at TEQSA in due course take a more flexible and enabling view of the sector that allows us to compete the rest of the world’s great universities.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 179,000 academics and researchers from 4,895 institutions.

Register now