Group of 8: Seizing the Opportunities

The Group of 8, the group of Australia’s leading universities (or self proclaimed Ivy League) has today shared its vision on the future of Australian higher education, or better, what needs to be done to keep it dynamic and competitive. According to the Go8, the current system was designed for a past era and does no longer provide the right framework for universities to perform in a global knowledge economy (something that National University of Singapore president Shih Choon Fong seems to agree with).

The current Australian higher education and research system is under-resourced and over-regulated (hear hear!). But it is also under-planned and insufficiently diversified for the needs of contemporary Australia. The Go8 provides eight proposals that should increase the flexibility that the universities need to remain competitive and that will serve the Australian community:

An Australian Tertiary Education Commission (ATEC)
The establishment of an Australian Tertiary Education Commission (ATEC), responsible for planning, resource allocation and regulation in respect of post-school education throughout Australia.

Student-driven higher education
Student access to undergraduate and graduate courses should be aided via a universal entitlement to an income-contingent loan and, for meritorious and needy students, via national tuition scholarships.

Mission-based block funding of universities
A new funding line, University-Community Partnerships, as a mechanism to correct for market failure in the event that student choice leaves neglected or dissipated some fields of knowledge that have national or regional importance. The ATEC should have the capacity to provide a number of places for designated ‘public interest’ courses for which the Government pays a community service obligation retainer.

National investment in university research
If Australia’s best universities are not going forward then Australia will be going backwards against international competitors. Therefore they suggest:
(i) National competitive peer-reviewed grants for research: by 2012 the amount of annual funding should be double its present value;
(ii) Adequate investment in research infrastructure: a rise in the Research Infrastructure Block Grants (RIBG);
(iii) National research hub & spokes arrangements; for this, a program is needed to provide Australian academics with access to research universities combined with support for the host universities;
(iv) International engagement of Australian university research: Australian researchers must be able to participate in international research platforms and networks.

Performance-based block funding for research
A new, tightly targeted research funding program would allocate block funds to universities, with funding agreements subject to rigorous seven year cyclical evaluations.

Research quality evaluation
A validated metrics-based approach to the assessment of research quality and its broader societal benefits should be adopted.

A dual system of assistance for research students
A gradual expansion of research training places which should be funded with the goal of raising the total number of domestic research degree students from some 22,000 to around 30,000 over five years.

Managing the transitions
During the transition period each university should retain its research funding at close to present levels through performance-based block grants.

I guess, with all the requests for extra funding, it is written in anticipation of an election win for Labor later this year. On the other hand, it pretty much continues the new public managment and accountability agenda of the last decades. I’ll have a closer look soon and address some of the proposals at a later stage. For now, here is the full report: ‘seizing the opportunities‘ (pdf).

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