A view from my packing boxes
26 September 2012, by Professor Paul Wellings
Professor Paul Wellings, CBE, is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wollongong. He was previously Vice-Chancellor of Lancaster University, UK and a Board Member of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
One of the features of changing jobs and moving office half way around the world is that you are forced to rationalise all the stuff which accumulates. If you are anything like me, it is all too easy to become distracted during this process of throwing things out and to begin re-reading and reflecting on the content of old documents.
My collection of papers includes a wide range of commentaries devoted to science and innovation, research and development, and policies for higher education. These cover a period when I held senior roles in the CSIRO and DIST (1991 – 2002), and Vice-Chancellorships at Lancaster University, UK (2002-2011) and more recently the University of Wollongong.
This has been an important period for Western Economies as most have experienced major restructuring of their manufacturing industries and big efficiency changes in service industries. Through all of this, our policy makers have struggled to create options aimed at preventing our economies racing to the bottom. Universities have been kept in the spotlight because of our capacity to influence growth. Two aspects of our work have been of interest: First, because we produce graduates with the high-level skills needed for the future, and second, because we generate new knowledge with the capacity to transform our economies and societies.
Here in Australia we have been in a continual cycle of review. In the past 15 years, skills, growth, innovation, research priorities, science policy, regulation and research funding have all been examined. Some good things have come from this. So, for example, the sector has benefited from a substantial increase in competitive research funding. In addition, there has been a large increase in the number of domestic undergraduates being educated in our universities. This has made Australian higher education more responsive and created many opportunities for a broader range of Australians.
As recently as 2000, national conferences were calling of a greater focus on universities. Business and government were pressing for international benchmarks on the quality of institutions in the sector. By chance, the past decade has witnessed the development of a variety of international league tables. These consistently show that around 20 Australian universities are to be found in the world’s top 400. The presence of about 5% of the world’s leading institutions is a major national asset and one that is essential for Australia’s future productivity. The Economist’s 2011 review of Australia highlighted the need to ensure a first class university sector in Australia. Strengthening the quality of our universities should be seen as a significant policy initiative. A great share of the current resources boom should be invested in the higher education sector to create a springboard for the future.
As we go into the next election cycle policies influencing universities will be significant. It seems inevitable that there will be a big debate about the funding of domestic undergraduates. This will focus on the relative balance of fees coming from the Commonwealth versus the individual as part of the desire to reduce national expenditure. In all of this it is essential that we protect the unit funding available for teaching so that students have the opportunity to develop skills in modern settings.
At the same time we are likely to hear arguments about the future of pattern of research funding. The current international debates here are two-fold: should there be more concentration of research and should there be more emphasis on impact? By international standards, our research funding is already super-concentrated; in part reflecting our urbanisation, the development of a major university in every state capital and the historical capital allocations to our older institutions. It is hard to see the case for further concentration at a time when we want diversification of research competencies and regional development. The debate about research impact will continue, driven by the ERA and the desire of measure return on the increasing investment in the basic research. Here we should not allow impact to be confused with an old-fashioned view of research commercialisation. We need a broader debate on the best way to fund university: industry interactions which are relevant to the size, distribution and aspirations of our business sectors across the regions.
In all of this we need to put much more emphasis in high level research training and post-graduates. The lack of policies to support higher degree students is noticeable compared to the UK. At sector level the number of PhD completions per 100 academics per annum is low relative to the standing of our universities. Few Australian universities are highly competitive on this measure. It seems that in the rush to expand undergraduate numbers we might have paid less attention to higher degree research students than is needed. This can’t be in the long-term national interest.
Putting time and energy into developing the next generations of researchers will help the development emergent technologies and ideas, and drive our national competitiveness. This will be critical for Australia in the event that the current resources bubble comes to a sudden end.