Takers, sometimes makers
In the throes of the political debate on fee deregulation (12 months old with this budget tonight) I often found myself thinking about whether we were just legislation takers, or could we be influencers, makers. Little has happened to change my view that we are primarily the former, and have to work very, very hard to be the latter. I've made my own position clear on the issue of funding - the sector is underfunded. Every international comparator tells us this. Decades of higher eduction reviews and reports tell us this. The other thing we know is that there are two principal beneficiaries from tertiary education - society and the individual. So logically both should fund the cost of that benefit. The simple question yet to be resolved is where the division of burden lies. A year later and we still haven't got an answer. But let's agree the fundamentals and work forward from there.
My visit to the Times Higher Education world's young universities summit earlier this month also highlighted a few matters. Firstly it reaffirmed for me what an extraordinarily good university we are fortunate to have in UniSA. THE have us ranked at 35th in the world's top 100 under 50. QS similarly agree - an outstanding achievement for the University of South Australia. However, and as I said in an interview with the Irish Times on the day the rankings were published, there's a ceiling to how high universities like ours can climb in these, or any other global ranking system. The upper echelon of even the top 100 under 50 has a pretty good correlation between budgetary $ and positioning and an inverse correlation with student population. The 'best' institutions get by with billion dollar budgets and around 10,000 students. That's a luxury that precious few can afford. Especially if you believe that education should be accessible to all on merit.
Here we are a year into the debate about funding, and Australia has outperformed every other nation in the world's young university rankings. But to be ranked among the very highest would mean we would have to source or charge much more and teach many fewer. I'm not sure that works for me. Let's hope we can get to stability soon. Let's address the funding deficits and invest in what is undeniably a great higher education system. Let's lose any fixation we have for being the very top ranked and let's focus on being really, really good for our students and their futures. Let's not limit their ambition or potential through limiting access.
I do think that if there was an 'adversity' metric, if there was something which countered the somewhat perverse positive weighting of available dollars per student that propagates a largely unobtainable vision of the small and perfectly funded university, then Australian young universities would feature even more prominently than they currently do. That's unlikely to happen for the foreseeable future, so we are compelled to compete in ways that drive homogeneity but on a less than even playing field. Imagine what could be achieved with sustainable funding and the will and the freedom to differentiate....
I wonder what tomorrow will bring.
Through The Big Picture, I hope that our whole community gains a greater and current appreciation of what is going on, how it fits together and how our activities connect and reinforce each other at a whole of enterprise level.