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.


notnot said...

If the question is what makes a great university,then I must disagree Prof. McGowan. If the question is what is the ideal university then you might have a point. Teaching gets one no where in academia.

Andrew said...

Notnot's point seems to complement my own despite the professed disagreement. If "teaching gets one nowhere in academia" that's an indictment - and hardly a recipe for greatness. This isn't merely a question of ideals.