Monday, July 6, 2020

Cutting the Gordian Knot of University Research and Education Funding

In "University research funding and international student numbers rose, and will likely fall, together" (EduResearch Matters, 6 July 2020), Andrew Norton points out that most Australian university academics are employed to both teach and conduct research. This should not be a surprise as the Dawkins reforms designed this into the Australia higher education system. Australian universities are required to conduct research to be called universities. This has proved useful for marketing university courses, particularly to international students. The students select a university largely based on the research reputation. The dilemma for universities is that research output has little, if anything, to do with the quality of education.

Australian universities have been successful marking education internationally, based on their research record. However, good researchers do not make good educators. Having specialist research and teaching staff would make sense in terms of efficient delivery of quality education, as might a return to the pre-Dawkins education only institutions. One way to make this marketable to students would be by associating each research university with a cluster of teaching-only University Colleges.

The obsession with research rankings, I suggest, could be countered by promoting education and impact ranking schemes. Rather than being a victim of rankings developed by media companies, universities could cooperate to create more useful measures which suit their interests. A good model for this is the “Webometrics Ranking of World Universities” which ranks ten thousand universities.

Australian universities failed to prepare for an international crisis preventing students getting to campus, even when warned of this. There were relatively simple measures, using e-learning, which other countries planned for and which some of us in Australia were ready with.

Universities are also not addressing the longer term risk of competition for students, particularly from China’s Belt and Road Education Plan. Previously I worried this may see a long term decline in the competitiveness of Australian universities. However, due to COVID-19 and international tensions, Australia's universities may have only a few years to change the way they deliver education, if they wish to remain in business.