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Coalition wants specialised universities with ranking boost to Group of Eight

Shadow Education Minister Christopher Pyne wants universities to specialise instead of striving for sector-wide comprehensiveness. AAP/Alan Porritt.

The Federal Shadow Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, spoke last night in Brisbane about the need for Australia’s universities to move away from every institution trying to be comprehensive, and to instead further specialise in teaching or research.

At the David Davies Memorial Lecture, Mr Pyne said that The Times Higher Education Supplement’s latest rankings placed ranked only two Australian universities in the world’s top 50, compared to six under the Howard government in 2004. A Coalition government would help all of the Group of Eight institutions to place in the top 50, he said. A transcript of Mr Pyne’s speech follows.

Christopher Pyne, Federal Shadow Minister for Education

Sir Robert Menzies, out of all the Prime Ministers this country has had, was perhaps the one who recognised the vital importance of higher education above any other. He was unabashed in his enthusiasm for pure learning. At the Queen’s University, Belfast, in 1941 he stated:

“I have, and I state it without shame, an almost passionate belief in pure learning. I have never been able to accept the view that a university is a mere technical school.”

Later in the House of Representatives he was to say:

“As parents, we clamour more and more that our sons and daughters shall be taught things at school which will enable them to earn more money after they have left school, and nothing else. Again I say this is a pitiful conception of education. "Useless learning” as it has been described, must, I believe, come back into its own in this world if we are to produce a really civilized point of view.“

Menzies was reflecting the tradition first enunciated by John Cardinal Newman in the nineteenth century and described in 2001 by Avery Cardinal Dulles as:

"the primary end of education was not the acquisition of useful information or skills needed for a particular occupation in life, but cultivation of the mind. The special fruit of education, as (Cardinal Newman) saw it, was to produce what he called "philosophical habit of mind"… the mental refinement that comes from literary and philosophical training is something good in itself, quite apart from its utility. Whether one becomes a soldier, a statesman, a lawyer, or a physician, one will need the ability to think clearly, to organise one’s knowledge and to articulate ones ideas so as to deal effectively with the question at hand.”

This tradition of learning for its own sake, the gaining of knowledge as opposed to training, as espoused by Newman, Menzies and Dulles, is worth reaffirming. It will form the centrepiece of the Coalition’s policy in relation to places of higher learning in the years ahead.

We do, in my view, run a risk of universities becoming merely a set of narrow vocational training programmes unless we maintain standards that enable universities to devote attention to research, higher learning and scholarship.

At a time when so much of the focus of public debate is centred on moving toward a student demand driven system, I want to emphasise the need to advance the intellectual excellence for which a number of our universities are internationally renowned.

In December 2008, the then Education Minister and now Prime Minister Julia Gillard handed down the Bradley Review into Higher Education. This report has shaped the policy direction the Government has taken over the last three years.

The Bradley Review recommended a student demand-driven system, as well as an increase in the number of 25 to 34-year olds participating in higher education to 40 per cent by 2025.

The Coalition supports both the move to a demand driven system and these targets but we believe that the way we judge our higher education institutes must not exclusively focus on the number of students graduating each year, or the number or variety of degrees our higher education providers offer but on the ability of our universities to facilitate excellence in research, innovation and scholarship.

Business and industry needs our education system to produce a regular supply of graduates ready to fulfil workforce needs but our universities must not be considered an assembly line focussed on producing a regular supply of skilled hired hands.

If attention only focusses on the issue of the number of students with a university qualification as the measure of success we run the risk of downplaying the available space for public discussion on the future of our universities’ ability to maintain their achievements in research for which Australia continues to aspire to be internationally recognised.

In world university rankings in 2011/12, the respected British journal The Times Higher Education Supplement listed only two of Australia’s universities in the highest fifty rankings - the University of Melbourne and the Australian National University.

There were six amongst the highest fifty in 2004 during the Howard Government – the University of Melbourne, ANU and also Monash University, the University of New South Wales, the University of Sydney and the University of Queensland. (The University of Adelaide came in at fifty sixth and the University of WA at ninety sixth.)

Our universities have fallen in international comparisons in the last six years. It is a situation that demands a response and not an excuse.

We need to at least get the Group of Eight Universities back into the highest fifty ranked universities worldwide in the next four years.

Given that research (volume, income and reputation) comprises thirty per cent of the performance criteria for the rankings – this must be an area of policy priority if we want to achieve this goal.

The reality of our higher education system is more complex than the one-size-fits-all uniformity suggested by the so called “Dawkins reforms”.

That is, a model that sees our thirty eight public higher education institutions that differ from each other in terms of student need, academic areas of pursuit, size, and character, required to both teach and research and largely treated as an homogenous grouping of tertiary institutions.

It should be explicitly recognised that the needs of some of our greatest research institutions – take the Australian National University, ranked thirty eighth in the world this year – will inevitably serve a very different student population to its neighbouring higher education providers in New South Wales or Victoria.

Universities inevitably serve very different student populations and, due to economies of scale, some are not able to offer more than a small number of courses that are offered at a nearby institution nor to compete as successfully for significant research funding.

But on the other hand, different higher education providers might be stronger in teaching.

It would be disappointing to see as one of the outcomes of the introduction of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency a shift toward further uniformity – even more similar regulatory conditions for institutions that are of a completely different character.

I am not of course suggesting that Universities that focus more on teaching, rather than research and advanced scholarship – are any less valuable – not for a second.

There is an important and valuable role in teaching focussed institutions but all universities should not be expected to try and be all things to all students or fulfil the same role in every case.

In the mid 2000s the former Coalition Government released the Guthrie Review concerning diversity in higher education .

The key focus of the Guthrie Review was to look at how Government could support a diverse higher education system by encouraging institutions forging distinct missions through greater collaboration between individual universities and other education providers as well as industry, business and regional communities.

Several approaches to institutional diversity were proposed, including consideration of the specific combinations of teaching, scholarship and research that should define universities and other types of higher education institutions.

A central issue was the role of research in universities. One option that came under consideration was a class of institutions that would be recognised as engaged in teaching only. Research would not be regarded as an important or even a necessary role for these providers.

Specifically it was proposed that improving Australia’s higher education sector in a global market for education could not be achieved through the ‘one size fits all’ model for a university.

Improving Australian’s higher education sector can only be achieved through a higher education approval process that accurately reflects the diversity of universities.

Other countries have higher education regulatory frameworks that accommodate a broader range of higher education institutions than have traditionally been seen in Australia. In some overseas systems, universities are not expected to have a comprehensive research and teaching profile, some are more teaching intensive and others more research intensive. Others combine both research and teaching but only in specialised areas.

An analysis of the Australian Research Council funding, which is the research funding available to support the highest quality fundamental and applied research and research training across all disciplines, indicates that for the last ten years the Group of Eight Universities have secured around two thirds of the total available funding.

This tells us that the remaining thirty universities share the research funding not awarded to Group of Eight Universities. Obviously, many of those universities are predominately teaching focussed. There are also further research grants provided to support research and research training, such as international Postgraduate Research Scholarships, Australian Postgraduate awards, and Research Infrastructure Block Grants.

Again, out of the total funding pool available for these further research grants, over the last ten years the Group of Eight Universities secured over two thirds of the funding. Of particular interest is that the percentage that each of the Group of Eight Universities secure doesn’t really alter from year to year. Let’s take for example, the University of Melbourne. They secured almost 11% of these grants in 2001 as a proportion of the entire funds available and for 2006 and 2011, 11 and 12% respectively.

In other words, universities are in many respects self selecting as either predominately research or predominately teaching focussed. The state should not interfere in this process by skewing grants to one institution or set of institutions in the future. Merit should be the only basis upon which grants are made.

Some argue that historically, Australian universities have conducted both teaching and research and should continue to do so despite trends elsewhere around the world toward restricting one or the other of these activities or separating them in different institutions entirely.

There is a view within the higher education sector that research is critical to the maintenance of the quality of learning and teaching by informing teaching. In other words, you can’t have one without the other.

Nevertheless, I believe there would be real benefits if government policy encouraged some universities to be able to greater maximise their opportunities for research and for others to focus more on teaching.

To demonstrate the need to strengthen our approach to research let’s take the industry that is currently on everyone’s lips – the resources sector.

It is worthwhile considering some statistics from the November 2010 publication of the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

All money spent on research generally comes from three different sources - business, government or higher education. Unsurprisingly these three sources have very different research agendas – for example, much of the research spending on the environment comes from government, whereas most of the research spending on manufacturing comes from business.

Of all the money that business spends on research about 15% goes toward energy research.

Government spent only 3% and the higher education sector spent 2.5% of its total research dollar on energy.

The two combined are only about 5%!

You might like me, find the combined 5% spending by government and the higher education sector on energy disproportionately low in comparison to other areas when we think about how much petroleum and coal product manufacturing contributes to our economy.

The Coalition’s long held vision is to be recognised globally by the mining and manufacturing industries as the leading research country delivering innovative technologies to the mining industry.

To help realise this goal the former Coalition Government created CRC Mining in 2003 - an internationally recognised mining research centre supported by ten industry and four university participants.

But I find it concerning that we don’t have more internationally recognised, world-leading specialised institutions that focus almost exclusively on research in the resources area to complement the investments made by business. Institutions that both drive and compete with each other in the latest initiatives in minerals and petroleum exploration, extraction, processing and sustainability would be a huge boon to our research efforts in this economically crucial area.

It is surprising that Australia does not have one specialised world leading university that focusses almost exclusively on research in this area.

Petroleum and coal product manufacturing are currently the saviours of our economy in these straightened times for the world economy (BHP Billiton and RTZ-CRA are two of the world’s biggest mining companies and both are Anglo-Australian) yet Australia does not boast the world’s only specialised and best research driven university in this area.

Australian government policy should drive the development of a world leading university creating the latest initiatives and development efforts in minerals and petroleum exploration, extraction, processing and sustainability research. Under a future Coalition Government, it will.

There was a further proposal in the Guthrie Report to diversify and decentralise our higher education sector which is worth considering – the possibility of creating an independent pathway to self-accreditation for worthy tertiary institutions.

There are currently five non-university institutions in Australia that are authorised by Government to accredit their own courses. They are: the Australian Film Television and Radio School, the Australian Maritime College, the Bachelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education and the Melbourne College of Divinity.

Guthrie suggested a new protocol might be developed that allows experienced non self-accrediting higher education providers to apply to become self-accrediting.

In practise it was envisaged that these newly self-accredited higher education providers should engage in research, just like all other universities, but they would not be called universities because unlike universities, they would be offering courses (and doing research) in a much narrower field of expertise than universities which offer anything from arts to science.

In one sense these institutions would be pretty much like any of the existing five self-accrediting (non-university) higher education providers.

Though the notion of supporting a pathway for more self-accrediting institutions that focus on niche areas of research might sound difficult – might it not also have merit?

There are for example, several highly specialised universities around the world combining teaching and research in niche areas such as the Rockefeller University in the United States. It is a world-renowned centre for research and graduate education in the biomedical sciences, chemistry and physics. Twenty four of its scientists have won Nobel Prizes.

The University of the Arts London is another one – comprising six distinctive and distinguished colleges that offer a diverse range of courses at all levels from undergraduate to postgraduate and research in the areas of fashion, design and communication.

Given that coal, natural gas and oil are the major players in Australia’s prosperity might such an institution akin to a Rockefeller University or University of the Arts London but instead dedicated to research into energy not be warranted in Australia?

For over twenty years the dominant thinking in Australian universities has been shaped by the Dawkins reforms of the 1980s. These reforms rewarded uniformity and conformity over diversity and specialisation. But as the Right Honourable Sir Paul Hasluck noted here in Queensland at the opening of Queensland University’s Mayne Hall in 1973:

“Neither uniformity nor conformity seem to me to be characteristics of higher learning.”

It is to be regretted that over the last two decades government has sought to encourage education as an industry rather than a pursuit for its own ends.

If given the chance, I intend to lessen the dead hand of central control on universities, allow them to specialise should they wish to do so and not be discouraged from doing so by financial penalty and give our best institutions the opportunity to be even better in order to have all our Group of Eight Universities in the highest top fifty in the world.

We will explore the avenues that will facilitate the best teaching institutions focussing on teaching and the best research institutions focussing on research.

We will not be hidebound by the past nor locked into two decade old investments in reforms by a former Labor government for which many are still awaiting a dividend.

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