What Makes a University Great?

In the Melbourne Age recently a number of Australian Vice-Chancellors (University Presidents, for international readers) were asked what might make a University great.

There were some astute observations - these are intelligent people, after all. There were, however, some clangers. Most obvious was the statement attributed to Ian Young, head of Swinburne University and shortly to succeed to leadership at the Australian National University in Canberra.

...if you ask people on the street to name great universities, they would roll off names such as Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard.

''It is undoubtedly because of their research performance,'' he says.
I could hardly disagree more, at least with the reasons given. People on the street are aware of these places because of their enormous contribution to education: to the formation of thinkers, scientists, artists and leaders. Some of these institutions have come only fairly recently to what is usually thought of as "research" in Australian higher education policy.

Throw-away lines are not the basis on which any of us would want to be judged, but I will at least take this as a sort of Freudian slip for the sector as a whole. Australian higher education, or at least its bureaucratic superstructure, has convinced itself that research is its real reason for existence, and in the process has imagined itself a past in which this was always the case (another sign that we need more resources for the study of history!).

Students, however, want education, and so they should. They come hoping to be trained, but also inspired; they come seeking opportunities for fulfilment of goals and dreams, but also still forming them.

Research is not the enemy of this function; there is nothing more inspiring than being taught by scholars of great erudition or scientists who have made great discoveries. This research-teaching nexus has been adopted as the model for Australian universities by our policy-makers and funders, and it is admirable.

There are two problems with it, however, at least in the current form. One is that it is imagined as the only real model. Here as so often the imposition of uniformity has become a proxy for, and indeed the enemy of, real excellence. Australia does not seem ready to sustain liberal arts colleges along the US model, but no state university has been given the means to become or create one. We may hope that fuller implementation of the Bradley Review of Higher Education, which envisages funding following students according to their institutional choices, rather than allocating it to Universities along "command economy" lines, will be a positive influence.

This could mean that students gravitate to institutions which offer quality based on current educational programs and outcomes, not merely those that trade on past glories or present research. It will be interesting to see whether, in time, the offering of degree-level education by historically-VET-sector providers, and by private players such as religiously-based colleges, may threaten the complacency of the larger institutions.

The second problem - not an easy one - is how to make the research-teaching nexus work. The same Age article gave examples of how students can be inspired to become researchers, but that's not really the point. They need to be inspired to become leaders and thinkers in whatever field, not just to supply the succession plan of a research culture. Most university teachers are conscientious, as well as intelligent; but many are encouraged to regard teaching as a necessary evil. There are no all-staff congratulatory e-mails related to teaching that compare to the hushed silence awaiting a new round of ARC grants that offer the chance not to teach. While the AQF battles the demons of minimum standards through the anachronism of uniformity (again!), the pursuit of excellence in teaching is not given the same emphasis or the same resources.

A great university would, I suspect, have great research and great teaching going on. This probably won't get much disagreement. We do have moments of such greatness in many of our universities. What remains deeply and sadly unclear is whether and how policies and funding priorities are fostering that much-valued combination, or merely hoping that the teaching benefit will emerge through benign neglect. Whether we should be seeking our own Oxford or Harvard remains to be seen - but under current circumstances, the horizon may well remain bare.


The Crisis We Had to Have: The International Education 'Sector' Pauses for Reflection

According to some, Australia's international education sector is in crisis. Exchange-rate shifts, concerns about violence, newly-enthusiastic competitors in the US and the UK, and changes to visa requirements for international students have conspired to make enrolment numbers stagnant, and many institutions nervous.

Under these circumstances, the prominence in Australia's public conversation of the international education "sector" is worth examining more closely and critically. The "sector" may be a useful category for accumulating statistics about total revenue and economic impact, but less helpful for understanding the programs and institutions, the students and staff who participate in them, or the specific challenges they face.

More specifically, generic sector-level discourse about international education tends to be driven by the commonality of financial scale, rather than the more elusive but more fundamental issues of inherent quality and value, which are more varied. Revenue is what they have in common - but that tends to hide rather than reveal what must now be given attention.

Policy and strategy constructed purely on the commonality that international students pay fees dislocates the necessary place of education itself as the foundation of strategic vision for colleges and universities. It objectifies students as 'clients', countries as 'markets', colleges as 'providers', and makes education itself as inspiring as making widgets.

If any more engaging vision is obscured by such language and by anxiety about revenue, should we then wonder why Australia seems vulnerable to perceptions of racism, or that we struggle to persuade some prospective students that we are offering an experience of the highest quality?

The great opportunity offered by the current crisis might be for reflection. If business as usual is not possible in some places, it's time to ask what the business is, and what it is for.

The most valuable thing would be for the balance to swing to the specifics of education itself. This will involve above all an openness to diverse strategies, whose commonality is based on the pursuit of the high quality. Quality, varied as it necessarily is, is the real common selling-point of Australian education for genuine international students.

Pursuit of quality needs to be supported by a policy and regulatory framework flexible enough to allow such diverse strategies for quality to emerge and flourish, and not merely by attempts to make institutions mark to a common bottom-line.

The irony of a public conversation and policy framework which start with the money is that they are less likely to achieve or sustain financial results. A shift of focus regarding international education, from generic revenue goals to the more varied ones of education excellence, is required for Australian educational institutions to assure their inherent quality, and hence to be capable of contributing economically as well.


The Taxi Driver's Guide to International Education

[From an address given at the Dean's Dinner in the Hall of Trinity College, April 24 2010]

If you go to Washington or Canberra, cab drivers are reknowned as pundits and sources of political rumour. In New York, a taxi may be a source of informal reviews of Broadway shows or restaurants. In Melbourne however taxi drivers are a rich source of information about quite different things: cricket, Hindi and Urdu popular culture, Indian restaurants, and international education.

As both locals and visitors may have realized, a large number of Melbourne cab drivers are current or former students, very often from India. They are in my experience a rich source of anecdotal information about local Universities and technical education providers, especially about courses in IT, hospitality and business. They are impressively well-informed and educated people, who have taken on one of the least well-paid or supported positions in local service industry, for the sake of their goal of making Australia a home for themselves and their families.

There were 516,000 international students in Australia in June 2008.  Around 33% of Victoria’s post–secondary students are from overseas.  Although many of these are in the vocational sector, The University of Melbourne’s international enrolment – just under 25% of about 45,000 students – is not the highest among the Group of 8 universities.

The fact that Australia has a significant number of international students is, in the first instance, to be celebrated. It suggests Australian higher education is well-recognized internationally, it provides means for building networks of cooperation in both formal and informal ways, and is of course important to the economy.

Yet the numbers are widely, if not very publicly, acknowledged as problematic. These very large absolute and relative international enrolments in Australian universities are typically driven not by desire for partnerships in development, or even by strategic concerns about Australia’s place in the Asian economy. The numbers in some cases defy even commercial logic; they expose the institutions concerned to huge risks if events such as another SARS or regional economic crisis were to emerge.

There are few Australian higher education institutions that really have a strategy around internationalization that goes much deeper than the revenue international students bring. This myopia has of course been catalysed by the problems of funding higher education; because a University typically loses money on domestic undergraduate enrolments, there is a very deep institutional temptation to set targets for international (and full-fee paying) enrolments that balance the ledger. In a sense, the Universities have had little choice.

During last year’s debate about the safety of international and particularly Indian students, the importance of that economic impact was never hard to see. It was as easy to find articles in the press by searching “$16 billion industry” as by searching for tags more clearly related to higher education or violence against students.

The conversation in the press thus tended unwittingly to reflect a problem, as much as consciously to analyze it. A public conversation about the safety of international students that presented their value and contribution solely in dollar terms reflected an objectification not much more edifying than that exemplified in the tragic and violent events that provoked the whole conversation.

What should we do? The fact of a substantial international enrolment in this and other Universities is a positive thing. These students will play a part in helping Australians understand other countries and cultures, and will take with them, if they return, a deepened sense of Australian culture. All this we may hope will lead to better international relations and partnerships of various kinds.

Yet we should also hope for new funding models in higher education that allow and indeed challenge Universities to take internationalization seriously as an ethical and educational issue, not merely a financial one. Australia’s strong education and research tradition can assist the promotion not only of prosperity, but of civil society itself, in the region. It can also assist Australia to position itself more adequately for coming changes; not only and most obviously the economic power of emerging powers in the region, but even the growth of their respective higher education sectors, which will eventually meet the demand currently driving many students from places like China to Australia.

Australia should also be glad of many of those who will stay, rather than return, such the Indian students undertaking vocational programs. Yet the connections between residence and such programs have been profoundly flawed and need to be reconstructed. Some of the current detours, via taxi ranks and programs students have little real interest in or need for, must give way to programs that international students with ambitions to migrate really want, and Australia really needs.


O-week, Lent, and the Gift of Time

[extracted from a Sermon for Commencement Evensong, Feb 28 2010]

There is something painfully awkward about the fact that in our hemisphere Lent, a time of fasting, penitence and self-denial for Christians, tends to coincide with the commencement of the academic year. Sure enough, the first week of Lent this year was also O-week, not a time renowned for restraint or abstinence. However much you have been told about the importance of academics, well-being and proper conduct, I suspect the importance of mortifying the flesh has not been uppermost on your minds!

But O-week has not all been a time of euphoria and self-indulgence. All of you have learned new things, some of them challenging. Some of you are missing friends and family, however welcomed you feel in College. Others may not have felt completely included or absolutely comfortable with everything you have experienced, and are working out how say so. So there is a time of testing here along with the fun, that makes the conjunction of these seasons a bit less bizarre.

Others, however, have faced even harder challenges this past week.

On Wednesday night at a College not far from here, a young man died. Jarrad, a student at Glenn College at La Trobe University and until recently at Gippsland Grammar School, was a friend and schoolmate of people here this evening, some of whom feel his loss keenly. By all accounts Jarrad was bright, outgoing, well liked, and eager to engage with his chosen field of animal science. And his time has come and gone.

Jarrad’s death is a tragedy all the more shocking because of it happening now, when we are celebrating new beginnings; it seems to exacerbate this contradiction of what the present time means.

On a Thursday night many years ago, and much further away, another young man faced death:

He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’ Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’

Jesus was about the age of many resident tutors in our Colleges; not old enough to have fleshed out his CV properly, let along to have fulfilled the career potential of a major religious leader that others foresaw for him.

He realized however that, in his unique circumstances, the most life-affirming and world-changing thing he could do was to offer his life completely and fully to people who would not honour the gift, but abuse it. And we do not judge his achievement or the gift he was to us by the length of his years, but by the character with which he lived, and died.

This is the story at the heart of Lent. Lent certainly focuses on the difficult aspects of human existence—suffering, mortality itself—because it is a time for Christians to enter into the story of that young man facing death. We seek to do so partly because of the significance his death, as well as his life, have for us, as the epitome of a life lived fully for others, and which brings life to us all; but we do so mindful of our death, asking what difference it makes to our life now.

So Lent and O-week do have this much in common at least – that they place before us the challenge and opportunity of just how we want to live this time we are given.

Life is a gift every day. The value of what we will do with the gift does not depend on the amount of time we have spent, but on how we spend whatever time we are given.  So we should live not merely with a view to future opportunities for achievement or fulfilment of ambitions, however worthy; today, now, is the time when we must learn to be who we really are.