16 October 2017

How good are Australian universities?

Last week Professor Simon Marginson gave the R. Douglas Wright Lecture at the University of Melbourne, in which he asked: ‘How good are Australian universities?’

Universities, he argued, have become central to Australia. As elsewhere, enrolment has grown significantly, while funding per student in Australia is now higher than at any time since the early 1990s. Education is the nation’s third largest export after coal and iron ore.

Professor Marginson praised the strength of Australia’s middle layer of universities, highlighting the fact that 23 universities in total are in the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities global top 500. He argued that the preponderance of degree level participation is also a strength, and many Australian universities have effectively embraced their geographical location, becoming active and successful in Asia.

Yet he warned that in comparison with other countries, Australia’s universities lack variety in mission. All universities work to the same teaching-research mission template, and all are large and comprehensive of the disciplines, resulting in a ‘one-dimensional sector’. There are no specialist institutions. This uniformity, he argued, originated with the first universities established in the nineteenth century and has been further entrenched by Australia’s combination of market competition and government regulation.

A second problem is that the country’s leading global research universities are not well supported. Australia has only one university in the Shanghai ARWU world top 50, the University of Melbourne at 39. In many countries, the leading universities receive special funding to lift their research capacity and performance (e.g. RAE in UK, the Excellence Initiative in Germany, Brain21 in Korea, the 985 programme in China, etc), and some universities can fix tuition charges for domestic students to generate revenues (e.g. the private sector in the United States). Neither mechanism is available in Australia, where regulation treats all universities as if they have identical missions.

This reflects not only the particular Australian approach to equity in higher education, but the long-standing and deep-seated anti-intellectualism in Australian culture. This has diminished in the last generation but is still a factor.

Professor Marginson also highlighted the country’s poor outgoing student mobility as an additional concern. He concluded that Australia’s universities would build greater support if they showed the public that they generate broad public goods for the whole society, not just private benefits for individual graduates.