Investing wisely for Australia’s future

Editor’s note: The following speech was given by Professor Ian Chubb, Vice-Chancellor of The Australian National University (ANU) on Wednesday 29 October 2008 at the National Press Club of Australia. It is reprinted in GlobalHigherEd with his kind permission.

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Thank you Ken – for your welcome and introduction.

It has been some years since I last spoke at the National Press Club, and I appreciate the opportunity to do so again – particularly at the time when education reviews and research enquiries are being finalised and Government responses being prepared.

It is an important time; and there are opportunities not to be missed – and I plan to raise some of those with you today.

I suppose, before I start, I should make three things clear:

  1. I support the push for better funding for universities – accompanied by both reform and with selectively allocated additional funds for particular purposes based largely on the quality of the work we do – where we do it;
  2. I support the directions being pursued by the Government – and look forward to the outcomes of their various deliberations.
  3. I remind you that I am from ANU, that I work for ANU and that I serve ANU.  I like to think that through that role, however, I can also serve a bigger one – particular and important aspects of the national interest.

We at ANU do make a contribution to Australia and beyond.  For a start, we educate excellent students very well indeed; we rate in the top ‘A1’ band of the Federal Minister’s Teaching and Learning Performance Fund across our teaching profile – and have done so in the two years the category has been identified.   This was a surprise to some in the higher education sector, where we cherish the notion of a teaching-research nexus.  Notwithstanding the mantra, some had anticipated that better teaching would be done in the places where there was less research – more to spend on it perhaps, more of a focus, and so on.  It was presumed that the research-intensive universities would probably see teaching as a chore. But the research-intensive universities are places where staff and students alike are learners and where all of them are just downright curious to discover what they don’t know.  And at its best, they do it together.

At ANU we continue to work to improve what we do and how we do it. We set ourselves and our students stretch targets. We aim for high standards – not throughput. And we aim to give our students a head start in their life after University.

In research we do well.  We review what we do, we rate what we do, and we manage what we do in a way that some would call relentless, though few could argue is stifling.  So I am proud that the ANU continues to lead among Australian universities in the various world rankings that are, necessarily, based largely on research performance.

We are placed at 59 in the Shanghai Jiao Tong’s most recent listings and 16th on the list produced by the UK Times Higher Education Supplement, a position we have maintained now over three consecutive years.

I am proud because the rankings reflect well on the efforts of talented people. It is useful and it is reinforcing for that reason, and possibly more usefully it tells you about your neighbourhood when the world’s universities are rated along with you using a particular set of indicators.

I am not at all boastful, however, because we all know that such rankings are constructed arbitrarily around some of the available comparable measures year on year.  That they are called ‘prestigious’ or ‘highly regarded’ is largely because they are published each year, and because we have nothing else.  They are represented as ‘qualitative’ when in fact they are only partly about quality.

This is one reason why I support the Federal Government’s Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) proposal, because, handled well, it will provide us with an efficacious and internationally benchmarked model to judge research quality in Australia.  Then we should have something truly useful to talk about.

But let me now talk about something usefully indicative that can be drawn from the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJT) world university rankings: the neighbourhood.

When the rankings first came out five years ago, there were seven Chinese universities in the top 500.  This year there are eighteen.  It is quite possible that in five years’ time, given both the rate and the selectivity of their additional investment, there will be 10 or so Chinese universities in the top 200 and several in the top 100.  Australia may well struggle to keep our current three (ANU, Melbourne and Sydney) in that league.  Rankings are about relative performance and positions can change because of bigger changes in the performance of others and not because your own has slipped – or it could even be the way in which institutions present their data rather than any actual change in performance.  But the outcomes send signals that can be read.

Does this all matter?  Well I think it does, but it is not the only thing that matters.

When you look at the countries that have more than one university rated in the top 100 on the SJT ranking in 2007 you can see that they are countries with a high GDP per capita.

The United States stands out because of its scale.  The United Kingdom holds par when adjusted for population size.  Australia and Canada have been lifting above their weight, but Canada is now waxing while Australia is waning in every disciplinary field.  Asian universities are rising. European universities now realise that they are being left behind – but have started asking the right questions.

But history tells us that if you’re not able to pull your weight and to be a contributor you risk being locked out as a discipline, or as a university, or as a nation. If we don’t match investment and don’t match performance, Australia could be back to somewhere near where we were before 1946 – on the outside looking in.

In a world thirsty for talent and the benefits derived from the application of that talent, strategies are changing.  Many countries are ramping up their investments in their leading universities.  They are selectively concentrating additional funding for research, for research infrastructure, research centres of excellence and international research collaborations.  They are increasing the number of professors, and developing career opportunities for post-doctoral staff while enlarging doctoral student enrolments, including international PhD enrolments.

Take the example of Canada, which has set itself a goal of ranking amongst the top 4 countries in the world in terms of R&D performance across the government, business and higher education sectors. It set a target in 2002 of increasing the admission of Masters and PhD students at Canadian universities by 5% per year through to 2010. It is providing $300 million annually to support the salary costs of 2000 research professors in Canadian universities and hospitals, seeking, in their own words, ‘to unleash the full research potential’ of these institutions by attracting the best talent in the world – and they are doing so selectively. Close to two thirds of the Chairs have been allocated to the 13 most research intensive universities amongst their nearly 70 universities and roughly equal number of Colleges. Just last week the Canadian Finance Minister commented that they must build on  ‘our knowledge advantage’ and that: “This is a critical time in Canada in terms of making sure that in our public-policy decisions that we support universities and colleges.”

Germany.  Germany has invested heavily in research and innovation, particularly in the university sector, aiming, in their own words, “to establish internationally visible research beacons in Germany.” Their strategy includes spending up to 195 million Euros each year to establish internationally visible research and training Clusters of Excellence, based at universities but collaborating with non-university institutions. Closely tied to this is an effort to the tune of 210 million Euros each year to heighten the profile and strength of ten selected universities to be amongst world’s best in their areas of demonstrable excellence.

China.  China is the world’s fasted growing supporter of research and development with its national R&D funding now third highest in the world, just behind the United States and Japan. In 1998 China instituted the 985 Project, under which its ten leading universities were given special grants in excess of US$ 124 million over three years with the explicit aim of ensuring that China had universities represented amongst the world’s best. They have now enlarged the program to cover 36 universities amongst their hundreds.

Australia has still to move – and we have choices to make.  We see what is happening elsewhere: we see mostly additional funding concentrated and selectively allocated – not overtly, at least, at the expense of core funding; we see the benefits of granting universities adequate, strategic but accountable funding (like we once had); we see overt attempts to ‘internationalise’ by drawing staff and students from the global talent pool.  There is more…and so there are many lessons to be absorbed by us – an important one is to resist the temptation to spread additional resources – it would be close to a uniquely Australian approach.

And this in a world that won’t care unless we earn the right to be at their table; it is as true for our university leaders, our staff and our students, as it is for our political or our business leaders.   As I said earlier – if we are not at the table we would be back to something like the position we were just after the Second World War.

Our approach must be different from now.  We do need reform and we don’t need more tinkering. We don’t need more money tied up in small, so-called competitive programs that only partially fund what they purport to support and are not conducive to long-term planning.

I support a policy that will help universities be different from each other and to be outstanding at what they do.  I support policy-driven differentiation, not drift, and I support additional funding allocations above a better base related to both purpose and quality of work multiplied by the quantity of work.

I do not think that there is only one right way forward. And I would be happy to see us move on from an outdated ‘one-size fits all’ approach with side deals.  But not if it were replaced by the same sort of blunt and clumsy instrument.

But while there might not be one right way, I do know the wrong way: continuing the chronic partial funding of nearly everything we do.  In fact, we presently cope with a lot that is chronic. Chronic under-investment. Chronic tinkering rather than real reform. Chronic suspicion rather than trust. Chronic erosion of capital and infrastructure rather than provision of the best possible resources to enable our most talented to do their best work here. Chronic lack of support for students who are seen as a cost rather than a  means by which Australia invests in its future.  A chronic under-valuing of staff rather than recognising that the world call on talent means temptations are rife elsewhere. And a chronic under-valuing of PhD work and scholarships rather than using the peak to build capacity. The story rolls on.

For the universities of Australia to serve Australia’s interests, we need to be different from each other, respected for what we do, and be supported for what we do well over and above core support.  And we need the policy framework to make it happen, knowing that a consequence will be differential funding as different activities cost differently.

As a start we need to articulate what universities are for, what different purposes they may serve, and how.

In a recent essay, ‘What are universities for?‘, Boulton & Lucas (2008) suggest that the enduring role of universities is to create new opportunities and promote learning that enables deep thinking beyond the superficial, handles complexity and ambiguity, and shapes the future.  They argue that it is important not to be beguiled by prospects of immediate payoff from investment in university research and teaching.

I have a duty of care in my position to help build the University’s capacity to respond to such challenges in ways that are consistent with our envisaged role.  It is my responsibility, primarily, to ensure that the people with scholarly expertise in the University have the room and resources to excel in their research, the opportunity through teaching to share their first-hand insights with their students (I note that Paul Krugman, the most recent winner of the Nobel Prize for his research in Economics, said when he began his thanks: you have to start with your teachers), and the freedom to speak out when they see the need to do so, and to put their expertise into the public arena to help inform public opinion.

Let me indicate the ways by which universities can contribute, and then suggest some options for public policy.

I work from the premise that the ability of a university to deliver its mission depends crucially on public support, appropriate regulatory frameworks and adequate funding.  Without the requisite public trust and support universities cannot survive in today’s world.

Interestingly, the available evidence from surveys of community attitudes suggests that when it comes to major social, environmental and economic issues, the public and the Government look to universities for analysis, understanding and solutions.

Some of the current areas are well known: economic uncertainty, climate change, the threat of pandemics, sources of terrorism and the potential of alternative energy, just to name a few.

One of the ways ANU engages with the broader Australian community and seeks to understand what we Australians think is via ANUpoll.

The ANUpoll, led by Professor Ian McAllister in our College of Arts and Social Sciences, differs from other opinion polls by placing public opinion in a broad policy context, and by benchmarking Australian against international opinion. It can also reveal trends in opinions over many decades, drawing on the wide range of public opinion polls conducted at ANU since the 1960s.

It tells us interesting things about Australians. The first Poll, released in April this year, revealed that Australians, by international standards, are much more positively disposed to high levels of government expenditure, particularly on health, education, the environment and police. The Poll tells us that there is a greater level of trust in government in Australia relative to other nations.

The second poll, released in September, sought the views of Australians on higher education. It found that Australians are concerned about fair and equitable access to our universities; they view university as one important way of improving the job prospects of their children, but not the only avenue to success; and they believe that the decline in public funding for universities has gone too far.

And we know from the  ANUpoll released today that concern about climate change is a big issue for the community. Global warming is perceived as a major long-term threat to the health of the planet by a large proportion of the population.  But there is no simple solution to this problem. It is one that crosses the boundaries of science, social sciences, health, economics, law, philosophy and more. It is a big challenge; and Universities have a key role to play in meeting it.

It is no coincidence that the Australian Government and state and territory governments turned to a respected academic to investigate the impact of climate change on Australia, and to propose potential solutions.  Professor Ross Garnaut in turn drew upon the work of many of his colleagues at ANU and other universities, for the latest data, for research, thinking and ideas to respond to what he identified as a ‘diabolical problem.’

Although from one discipline, Economics, Professor Garnaut’s report reflects the reality that at the heart of the climate change challenge is the need for a deep comprehension of interlaced, inseparable elements in highly complex systems. Perhaps no challenge facing us demands such an interdisciplinary approach. It is a challenge that the community expects universities to help to meet, and one that universities must help meet.

ANU is seeking to respond to that challenge with the formation of the ANU Climate Change Institute under the leadership of Professor Will Steffen.  This initiative represents a substantial effort by the University community to harness expertise across disciplines to extend knowledge about climate change – its drivers, its implications, the scope for positive responses to its impact, and possible correctives to its trajectory.

It will develop interdisciplinary research projects on climate change through the application of the University’s core capabilities around critical questions and issues.

It will develop high quality education programs aimed at meeting the national and international demand for qualified practitioners.  From 2009 ANU will offer an interdisciplinary Masters in Climate Change offered jointly between the Fenner School of Environment and Society and the Crawford School of Economics and Government. We believe it is the first of its kind in Australia.

The Climate Change institute will also engage globally, co hosting the International Alliance of Research Universities Copenhagen Climate Change Congress March 2009, and engaging with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP), and the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) among others.

ANU is seeking to respond to the expectations of the Australian community and government that the national university seek to find solutions to the complex problems that confront us.  The reality is that the world’s problems are inter-connected, and universities need organisational flexibility to respond creatively to the need for new knowledge in addressing them.

While the world faces the ticking time bomb of climate change, and universities here and around the world seek new ways to address such complex problems, another time bomb is ticking for universities – Australia’s changing demography.

The Group of Eight, has released today a backgrounder on the challenge of population change. It estimates that at least one third of the annual number of Australian PhD graduates will be needed each year on average over the next decade merely to replace retirements from the academic workforce.  Currently three quarters of doctoral graduates flow into non-academic occupations, so without additional output we would see either a slowdown of doctoral supply to the broader labour market – at a time when the country is seeking to increase the capacity of the private and public sectors to absorb new knowledge – or a shortfall in academic positions, and this is without factoring in any increase in the number of institutions to meet growth in future demand for tertiary education.

It was therefore pleasing to see the interim Report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Innovation on Research Training in Australia.  The committee is convinced, as are we, that there is a strong case for reform – and importantly, recommendations with budget implications have bi-partisan support.

The problem is sharper for fields of research from which the pull of labour market demand is strongest – such as in engineering or geology.  We should not assume that we can meet domestic shortfall readily through immigration in the future without being prepared to pay the prices that the intensifying international competition for intellectual talent is beginning to demand.

The educational attainment of the Australian workforce is considerably below that of the world’s leaders.  Two-thirds of Australia’s workforce over 25 years of age have no post-secondary qualifications, and one third have achieved less than upper-secondary education.  Only 77% of females and 68% of males aged 19 have completed Year 12 or equivalent.

To bring Australia up to an educated workforce equivalent to the world’s leaders would involve an additional 1 million people between 25 and 44 years getting tertiary education qualifications.  To achieve that lift in the domestic skills base is challenging.  Not to do it leaves a challenge of a different kind.

Additionally, for young people aged 15 to 25, that objective would require a much higher rate of participation and would mean finding new ways of promoting access and success among potential learners who lack readiness.  For equity as well as productivity purposes it is necessary to close the achievement gap without lowering educational standards.

Taken together these rising and diversifying forms of demand for learning cannot be accommodated within the current structure of tertiary education.  Greater diversification and innovation will be needed, including new types of providers, public and private, offering flexible, multi-modal access to learning opportunities.

We should not assume this will happen naturally.  Indeed we can expect resistance to it.  New incentives will be needed to overcome structural and cultural conservatism. Another reason to move from the ‘one size fits all’ approach and rather than looking for a simple solution develop a policy framework that promotes and supports difference through design rather than drift.

Twenty years ago the Australian Government expanded higher education on a foundation of three pillars:

  • An injection of additional public investment for growth in student places and new campuses
  • The provision of income-contingent loans to enable students to make a co-contribution to the costs of higher education without up-front financial barriers
  • A redistribution of existing resources from established universities to new institutions, notably through a ‘clawback’ of research funding.

The legacy of that approach is the persistence of sameness in the funding rates for teaching, the thin spreading of funding, unvalidated claims about standards of qualifications and excellence, and a levelling down of performance peaks. It was a ‘one size fits all approach’ and it was called a unified national system. In my experience over now 23 years, it was not national, rarely unified and hardly a system.

Expansion encouraged all universities to adopt broadly similar aspirations.

We are not alone.  Boulton and Lucas made that clear to us when they discussed the European dilemma: how to have research powerhouses amongst the world’s best and provide higher education for a growing proportion of the population.  They point out that “…excessive convergence towards a single model of the basic research-focused university, with a lack of differentiated purpose, structure and mission…” has resulted in at least 980 (European) universities claiming to “aspire to achieve international excellence in research.”  In the same article, they point out that:  “The US has resolved this dilemma. Fewer than 250 universities award postgraduate degrees and fewer than 100 are recognised as research intensive, with the rest devoted to teaching and scholarship.” And remember that the U.S has thousands of post-secondary institutions.

The approach in Europe and Australia, including the funding approach, probably impeded some universities from identifying and investing in niches neglected by the established research universities.

Regardless of their varying circumstances, universities have tended to use the rhetoric of excellence, rather than ‘fitness for purpose’.  But ‘excellence’ is an empty notion when used without reference to validated performance standards.

The desire of institutions to move ‘up whichever ladder’ distracts higher education from its public purposes, skews missions, and alters institutional priorities and spending to drift beyond the limits of their capacity.

We see this very clearly in Australia where the gap between the Go8 universities and others in terms of research performance has been widening, not narrowing, despite the processes and funding of the last twenty years.

Clearly it is sub-optimal and counter-productive for the country to continue diluting the public investment in proven research capacity and performance.  We certainly cannot afford to apply this flawed thinking of the past to the future expansion and diversification of tertiary education.

An unfortunate effect of rankings like the Shanghai Jiao Tong measures that are based on internationally comparable data relating primarily to research output quality is that, in a highly competitive context, they reinforce traditional academic norms and encourage what Frans Van Vught has termed the ‘reputation race’.

He noted recently that:

The average quality of the current European higher education and research system is good but its excellence is limited.  A diversification of missions and of research portfolios and funding levels, would be necessary to allow the occurrence of more European top universities.

We could say the same about the fair to average overall quality of Australian higher education and research, while noting the view strongly held in European quarters and which resonates here, that student mobility is promoted through avoidance of stratification of universities.  It is seen to be anti-egalitarian to invest in excellence – at least in intellectual endeavours, for we don’t appear to have the same reluctance in sport. We invest additionally in the best athletes and national teams because in sport, we understand the concept of investing in excellence and that high achievement encourages the others.

Now we need a new approach to meet new challenges alongside longstanding needs to enlarge educational participation and strengthen capacity.

The three pillars on which the current system was expanded twenty years ago have become unstable. The Government share of funding has shrunk.  Market sources of finance are playing a greater role.

The problem with reliance on market forces in higher education is its tendency to reduce diversity in the system, and raise costs for students and taxpayers.  The market can be afraid of difficult or intellectually challenging ideas where the payoff isn’t easily predictable or easily apparent.

Clearly we can’t and don’t want to wind back the clock to a centrally-planned model of higher education.  Equally we cannot rely simply on the market.  A more flexible regulatory and financing approach is necessary, and we need to give form to the notion of mission-based funding compacts for each university that Labor proposed ahead of the 2007 election and has indicated subsequently its intention to progress in government.  I note that Deputy Prime Minister Gillard and Minister Carr have repeatedly declared their ambitions for the universities: structurally reformed, culturally reformed, socially inclusive and internationally competitive.  Hard to argue against – possible if not easy to achieve.

It is not enough to give universities what they ask for: more money, less regulation and more autonomy.  Or for universities to expect to be given what they ask for.  Much as we might be able to argue the compelling case for better generic funding, I can’t see that we stand a chance without conceding substantial reform and improvement.

To achieve what we need, we need not just Compacts but Compacts with teeth. We need Compacts that will hold us to hard decisions, validate and use evidence to agree and provide adequate support for our strengths and not simply endorse what we say about ourselves.

Compacts will fail to provide bold and different approaches if they are tied up in second-order metrics for shallow accountability reporting.

There must be some sharp incisors to bite through the surface of universities’ claims.  I suggest that the Government should complement negotiating teams of departmental officials with people with university experience (possibly international) who can exercise the discriminating judgements that will be necessary to validate the claims of universities against their missions.

The two main components of Compacts that may be on offer are the full funding of research and greater flexibility in financing of higher education.   I see these compacts working along the lines of the recent COAG reforms of Commonwealth-State specific purpose programs, to support additional performance-based actions on top of adequate (better) funding for core activities.  These would be significant reforms and I understand they need to be mutually beneficial for universities and the supporting community.

Hence, in return for full economic costs of research, I believe it is more than reasonable that universities should be able to demonstrate better knowledge of their costs, proper pricing, avoidance of internal cross subsidies, and improved management of their estates.

In return for improved funding, greater financing flexibility, and, for some universities, ‘deregulation’, I believe universities should be prepared to expand scholarships and bursaries for needy students, extend their outreach to raise aspirations and readiness of students from disadvantaged areas, and give greater attention to student success.

In a truly differentiated system it will be necessary to provide better support for students.  We must have a system that allows talented students, regardless of their life circumstances, to go to the university that best meets their ambitions and interests.  This will mean tackling the issue of income support, including rental assistance, if we are to develop a comprehensive strategy for improving the socio-economic mix of student enrolments in a markedly differentiated university system.

The participation rate of disadvantaged groups in higher education, notably students from low socio-economic backgrounds, Indigenous Australians, and Australians from regional and remote areas, remains low.

For many of these potential students and their parents, the additional education costs that cannot be deferred in the same way as HECS constitute an insurmountable burden – living expenses remain the major financial barrier to participation. Yet the system of student income support has not been reviewed by government since 1992.

I believe the Government is heading in the right direction with its three pillars of reform:

  • Expanding participation for the purposes of social inclusion and productivity improvement.
  • Focussing on internationally benchmarked quality as the key driver of investment in research and research training. An additional benefit of which might be to dispense with ‘perceptions’ and replace them with proven performance.
  • Increasing university flexibility and harmonising competitive processes with national public priorities.

I can simply enjoin the Government to stay on track, hold to the line and not get distracted by those who will seek a weaker course.  Even if there is to be a shortfall between the investment increases we need and the capacity of the economy to afford them for the time being, it is imperative that there is no compromise on the goals we set for ourselves and the standards we set for their achievement.

Anything less would sell Australia short.

Ian Chubb

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