Recently there has been widespread discussion of the new ERA (Excellence in Research in Australia) ratings. This has been a positive development, providing greater transparency about the nature and extent of world-class research output, university by university, discipline by discipline. There is a risk, however, that we are in danger of losing focus on the diverse missions of Australia's 39 universities.
With its sights set purely on excellence in discovery based research, we might take our eye off the other important activities of our universities, including teaching and learning, knowledge transfer and exchange, industry and community engagement, policy advice and thought leadership. This diversity of activities is critical to ensuring that the university sector is of maximum value to the nation.
Our two universities are good illustrations of this diversity. The University of Western Australia was established in 1911 and is the oldest university in its state. The origin of Victoria University goes back to the establishment of Footscray Technical School in 1916, but it is the newest of Victoria's universities, obtaining university status in 1990.
The University of Western Australia is a comprehensive teaching and research university which provides courses at Australian Qualifications Framework levels 6-10. It has decided to move to a model of five bachelors degrees to provide the broadest possible undergraduate education, to prepare students to specialise later in their postgraduate studies. Victoria University is a multisector university, providing courses at all AQF levels 1-10. It is devoted to lifelong learning and operates in vocational education, further education and secondary education, as well as in higher education.
It has many bachelors degrees, which are vocationally oriented, involve work based and work integrated learning, and are designed to make its students as job ready as possible. Having an outstanding TAFE capability puts Victoria University in an exceptional position to deliver strong pathways from TAFE to higher education, a critical part of the nation's tertiary education agenda.
The University of Western Australia aims to be a comprehensive world class university, and was ranked at or above world standard in all but two of the 22 two-digit codes submitted. Victoria University is more selective in its areas of research strength. It was rated at or above world standard in five of the four digit fields, but just two of the two digit areas. It is important, however, to complement the ERA ranking with better measures than we currently have in other aspects of our university scholarship: integration; application/engagement; and teaching and learning. A pilot European Commission project called U-Multirank aimed at a multi-dimensional global university ranking system http://www.multirank.ee on which vice-chancellors were briefed at the recent Universities Australia Conference, is the kind of initiative that should be encouraged. This approach to rankings will allocate values to a wide range of university activities.
One aspect of Victoria University's mission is to have an impact on the economic, social and community development of the west of Melbourne, (Australia's fastest growing region) including, for example, by building strong school-university partnerships to raise the aspirations and achievement of young people, especially those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. This is linked with a research agenda to be a world leader in the understanding of educating students from diverse backgrounds. In this regard VU is a living laboratory of what works, underpinned by research and evaluation. Another aim is to promote sport, recreation and healthy living and healthy communities through research and knowledge transfer in partnership with organisations like the Western Bulldogs, the Victorian Racing Club and the State Government's Maribyrnong Sports College, and the local government municipalities.
The University of Western Australia aims to be a leading intellectual and creative resource for the communities it serves. The University supports the Perth International Arts Festival, UWA Publishing, University Extension, an Art Gallery, the Berndt museum and many other community activities. The University of Western Australia has built strong relationships with the resources sector in mining, energy and agriculture.
Giving greater prominence to a wide range of measures of performance in these areas of integration, application/engagement and teaching and learning, through such instruments as the U-Multirank project, alongside the ERA ratings of discovery, is an important priority.
Allied to this the Australian Government should consider strategies to provide incentives and rewards for universities to invest in all aspects of scholarship to avoid the risk that the pursuit of ERA ratings have the unintended consequence of diverting resources from the kind of excellent activities that generate huge value for Australia from its university system. As well as contributing to the discovery of new knowledge to the world, universities have a key role in generating value to the nation from the world's stock of knowledge.
Peter Dawkins is Vice-Chancellor at Victoria University and Alan Robson is Vice-Chancellor at the University of Western Australia.
Campus Review, Page: 13
By Peter Dawkins And Alan Robson
Tuesday, 5 April 2011