Monday, June 01, 2015

Monday Forum - the future of Australia's universities

In UNSW grandly challenged I reported on the University of New South Wales strategic planning process. Now Alexandra Smith reports on the Sydney University process. This quote summarises the story:
The University of Sydney will dramatically reduce its number of undergraduate degrees, will rethink its research investments and face up to a cultural bias of "old, white males" in positions of power in a bid to unseat Melbourne as the best university in the country. 
The vice-chancellor, Michael Spence, has told staff that the next six months will be spent radically overhauling the structure and culture of Australia's oldest university. It will be a contentious time, he concedes, but critical for the future of the institution.

"On most of the league tables, Melbourne still beats us and that is not historically right," Dr Spence said

So now we have another race to to the top, at least as measured by the ubiquitous league tables.

I thought this Monday Forum we might talk about the future of Australia's universities. As always, feel free to go in whatever direction you like, but a few questions to get you started:
  • What do you think our university sector might look like in ten year's time?
  • What do you think it should look like?
  • What is the role of a university in the current environment?
In all this, I had a wry grin. While Australian Education Minister Minister Pyne considers the future over his cornflakes, the dynamics created by previous changes continue to work their way through the sector. By the time the Feds get their act together, they will be responding to changes already in place.  


Since I wrote this piece, Sydney University has launched its own planning process.- and here. Read the second link first. The aim seems to be to knock Melbourne of its number one place on  the international rankings.  Meantime, the University of Adelaide has introduced minimum performance standards based on things such as number of articles published, number of PhD students being supervised, of number of research grants.and satisfaction rankings from students.

As always, you tend to get what you measure assuming, of course, that the targets are achievable in the first place.The competitive pressures placed on Australian universities may increase their standing on the international rankings as measured. But it does also create a certain sameness.There is also a problem in that the things measured may not be the best.

This issue is on my mind at the moment because the University of New England has also launched a strategic planning process and I am thinking of putting in a submission. The University lacks the resources to really play the measurement game so it needs to stand outside the process, to come up with a new approach.

To break away, to attempt to stand outside the rules and measurements on which so much funding depends, is a high risk strategy yet the place really doesn't have a choice. Therein lies the challenge.

  . .


Anonymous said...

But then again, when you have provided the facilities and teaching guidance to allow for this brilliance, maybe they are already doing something well?

You don't have to live by a spreadsheet to excel :)


Jim Belshaw said...

Very interesting and I liked the pun! Do you know, I stand to be corrected, but I don't think that SU can include her work in its performance reporting because she was not a staff member!

2 tanners said...

From my point of view as a perennial student with no academic ambitions, this is stupidity. The 'clever country' policy was not a resounding success in my view, but at least the aim was correct - to develop our human resources in a way that could economically compete and maintain high levels of employment and growth after having priced ourselves out of all labour intensive markets, mining and agriculture in Australia now being capital intensive.

My view is moderated a bit now that possession of higher degrees, up to doctorate and sometimes publishing records are viewed as selection criteria for jobs which don't really require them. Hearkening back to a comment a couple days ago, the value of experience is being discounted to (at best) a substitute for the far more preferable option of a degree bearing candidate.

Jim Belshaw said...

I agree 2T on the value of experience. However, I would argue that life is more than economic growth or economic performance. It's even more than contribution to knowledge however we define that. It's also about richness and joy, the texture of life. I book I read a very long time ago given to me by my the headmaster was simply entitled knowledge for what? I have never forgotten that.

2 tanners said...

I see even less chance for academic or knowledge based richness and enjoyment flowing out of these changes than I do for simple economic gain. For decades now, it seems that the bulk of academics have reluctantly met their teaching requirements in order to focus on research and publishing. "Publish or perish" has been a very real threat to them. Student focus has been just about entirely lost except for their role as money providers.

Jim Belshaw said...

We are in agreement, 2T!