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Does it matter if Australian universities look the same?

It’s often said among those discussing the future of universities that we should have a higher education sector with a broader range of institutions.

This take usually fails to explain exactly why more diversity would be good, and nor does it reflect existing variation in the system.

In a recent paper, Australian National University deputy vice chancellor Ian Anderson with Robert Griew, a former senior public servant responsible for higher education in Canberra, present a detailed assessment of how the policy settings in Australia tend towards a comparatively narrow – by international standards – classification of universities.

The authors run with the 2017 thesis from Glyn Davis, now secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and formerly vice chancellor at the University of Melbourne, that relative homogeneity limits the potential of the higher education system as a whole.

The thesis is well argued, but it’s not clear that the problem is as serious as it’s claimed to be.

If we take a broad view of higher education encompassing research alongside learning and teaching, we could consider how the medical research institutes, CSIRO and other specialised research facilities contribute to diversity in the system.

There is also a healthy private higher education sector, and a reasonable level of delivery of higher educations in vocational education settings.

From a student’s point of view there are choices, though these may be constrained by the preferred mode of delivery – online, hybrid or face-to-face – and the ability or willingness to travel.

Given our unique geography and the norm of students generally opting to study close to home, it’s reasonable that we provide a comprehensive offer to students distributed as widely as practical, enabling metropolitan and regional communities equally to access the full benefits of university.

It is also good public policy to share this investment across diverse communities to support economic impact, resilience and infrastructure, both physical and intellectual.

In our largest cities, there are institutions seeking to be different from each other based on their foundational missions and the need to differentiate in the market for students.

There’s a reasonable argument that in these places there is a critical mass of universities where we have already achieved a good level of differentiation.

If concern comes from the costs of our current regulatory regime, and more specifically from the research requirements associated with being a university, then we should debate head-on that narrow aspect of differentiation.

Research and funding

It’s unlikely that reducing the research requirement would change institutional inclination to invest in research, given it’s the highest-order source of prestige and drives ranking position.

There is a longer-term question about how much research the country should fund directly, noting that more than half of the dollars spent on research in universities come from students’ fees and other sources beyond dedicated research funding. But it’s not clear that we solve that complex question through university categorisation.

We explore the question of differentiating universities through institutional strategies in Martin’s forthcoming book The New Leadership Agenda, where we conclude:

“There can be greater diversity of the sector within the current constraints – as a few challengers have demonstrated – but more could be done in regulation and compliance to support divergence. And this is not just divergence for its own sake but to make sure that universities deliver what is needed – by students, by research users, by community stakeholders, and in the wider economy.”

As we head into the Albanese government’s universities cccord process, let’s hope that these renewed calls for increasing diversity of our sector’s institutions set out, and then maintain a focus on, how further diversity would better serve the purposes and outcomes of higher education.

First published in the Australian Financial Review on 27th October 2022.
Emeritus Professor Martin Betts, Co-Founder of HEDx
Ant Bagshaw is a senior adviser in LEK Consulting’s Global Education Practice