AUSTRALIA: Whose interests should universities serve?

Simon Margionson's commentary last week, AUSTRALIA: Bradley: a short-term political patch-up, raises the question of whose interests one wants higher education to serve.

The expert panel for the review of Australian higher education has recommended changes to improve the sector's service to most students and the general community, and has concentrated remediation on the groups under-represented in higher education and the rural areas that are under-served and under-represented.

Promoters of the universities with the biggest research budgets, including Marginson, want the government to support their aspiration to join the international research top league. This serves the interests of top researchers and the elite universities chosen for special government support, but it is not clear that it would serve the general community. What evidence is there that trickle down works any better for research than it does for general economic development?

The argument for 'global competitiveness in the knowledge-economy' is normally put on one of two grounds. First, it is often said that with a world research university such as Harvard and Stanford comes a knowledge city such as Boston's Route 128 and southern California's Silicon Valley.

Overlooking the unrealism of Australia trying to develop a Harvard or Stanford down under within 50 years, knowledge cities arise only under very special circumstances of which a leading university is only a modest part. This would be clear anyway from observing the lack of a knowledge city in Oxford, Chicago and many other cities with a world-leading research university, or the modest successes of the University of Pennsylvania's 'University City' and Georgia Tech's attempts to establish a research park.

But the unusual circumstances for establishing knowledge cities have been well explained by Margaret Pugh O'Mara in her Cities of knowledge: Cold War science and the search for the next Silicon Valley (Princeton University Press, 2005). The lessons for Australia have been expounded lucidly by Jane Marceau and Jonathan West and his colleagues in the Australian Innovation Research Centre at the University of Tasmania.

As Marceau wrote in her review of O'Mara's book, simply trying to emulate overseas successes will not work, even if Australia could afford to try.

The second common argument for joining the type of global knowledge competition that Marginson and others advocate is that it is necessary to be able to participate in advanced and high-level knowledge exchange. This may be true, although, again, scant evidence is advanced for the assertion.

But it is researchers, not institutions, who participate in these knowledge exchanges. This is therefore an argument for developing and supporting top researchers. As the UK's research assessment exercise and many other studies have demonstrated, top researchers are not confined to the institutions with the biggest research budgets.

Neither are there economies of scale nor scope in excellent research. That is, research teams do not perform better if they are bigger than a minimum size of from six to 10 researchers depending on the field. Neither do research teams perform better if they are in the same institution as other top research teams.

So there is no advantage and there are considerable disadvantages in concentrating research in a few favoured institutions. As with the boosters of the big research universities in Australia, those in the UK fear that the results of the 2008 research assessment exercise may lead the government to increase funding for the top researchers outside the big research universities. This may reduce the competitiveness of the big research universities but it may also increase the competitiveness of the nation's research as a whole.

As the report to the Australian government on the review of the national innovation system said, "Rather than debating whether Australia can support two or three 'world-class' universities, the focus should switch to establishing a hundred or more world-class research facilities and research groups across the whole university system. Domestic and international networking should be promoted to ensure that the benefits of specialisation and concentration of research activity spread across the whole of the system."

It is all a question of whose interests one wants higher education to serve. Marginson and others conflate institutional with national interest.

* Gavin Moodie is a policy advisor to the vice-chancellor at Griffith University in Brisbane, Queensland, and a regular commentator on higher education issues. He is the author of From vocational to higher education: an international perspective (McGraw-Hill).

"Professor Simon Marginson responds:"

I respect Gavin's commentary generally but I think he is too kind to the Bradley Report and unfair and innacurate in his debate with me:

1. The Bradley recommendations in relation to strengthening participation and access for the under-represented are appropriate but do not go far enough to really shift behaviours. Only the recommendations that create a combined tertiary system, bringing universities together with vocational training institutions, have the potential to make a difference. I have been advocating those changes for years, as Gavin is aware. I am very pleased the report has gone down that path. Gavin and I agree on this.
2. I do think it is possible for a national system to make advances on tertiary participation and research performance at the same time. Bluntly, to set the two goals against each other as Gavin has done - in the Australian context, to create an "elites versus battlers" debate in higher education - is crude populism and will not lift the quality of policy debate.
3. The analogiy between economic trickle down and research trickle down is innacurate. Wealthy families and companies create private goods. Basic research creates public goods in the economic sense, which potentially includes solutions to many of the deepest problems we all face. The long term economic and social case for investment in basic research is very strong and, I think, broadly agreed in policy circles around the world. If Gavin really wants evidence I suggest he has a good look at the OECD website.
4. No-one in the Australian context is arguing - certainly I did not in the previous piece - that concentrating research activities will create knowledge cities. (Nor would I argue that any Australian university's role in research should be diminished, though we should be selective about what we develop from here). Presumably global knowledge cities and research and innovation tend to support each other and as a package are worth having, if we want to be part of the main currents of 21st century development. Perhaps Gavin does not agree with this goal.
5. I did not argue that Australia should adopt US models or follow American lines of development. Clearly that is unrealistic. No other country can reproduce the conditions of American success. Other nations must make their own pathways, though no doubt we can all learn from the successes of others.
In that context Singapore, the Netherlands, Finland, Canada and Denmark might have more to teach Australia than the US. Incidentally, all four have very strong research universiites (among other higher education strengths) and the last three also have much stronger equity performance than Australia. Perhaps Gavin thinks they should have concentrated only on one of these goals, research OR equity?
6. The argument for strengthening research in at least the top half of the Australian system is not an institutional interest argument. It is about research and the knowledge economy, and not institutional interest for its own sake.
7. Thus it is also a national interest argument, whether you agree with it or not. To type-cast national interest arguments you don't like as institutional self-interest at work is again crude populism. Thius is the fallacy in logic of 'poisoning the well' - attacking your opponent and not attacking the argument of your opponent. Of course the same kind of point can be made in riposte, Gavin is advancing a particular institutional interest etc., but where does that get us? Better to treat arguments on their merits whether we agree or not.
8. So Gavin is scptical about whether "'it is necessary to be able to participate in advanced and high-level knowledge exchange". There is "scant evidence", he says, for the benefits of this. I am not sure what kind of exchange he would proffer as an alternative, or whether he is implying that international discussion as such is a waste of time, but he has already demonstrated the fallacy in his own argument, by writing for University World News himself. And long may he and all others who wish to comment on the Bradley report do so. But no more neo-con style populism and politician-style playground name-calling, please! It's a new policy era now and we deserve better.

Simon Marginson