June 8, 2021

Why Alan Tudge is right to talk about specialisation in universities

Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge told universities last week he wanted to start a conversation about greater differentiation and specialisation in the sector.

Thirty-nine comprehensive universities may not be the optimal model for quality teaching or research, he said. We agree, even though the government recently has reaffirmed in legislation that all universities must undertake research at minimum levels of quantity and quality.

In world terms, Australia has had no highly research-intensive institutions since 1960, when the Australian National University amalgamated with Canberra University College and took on undergraduates. Nor does it have teaching-only universities because we don’t allow them.

Because of the way we fund research, the Group of Eight universities must recruit what are comparatively significant numbers of coursework students to fund researchers’ time and indirect costs. Because of our minimum requirements to retain university status, we cannot develop highly specialised teaching institutions that become sought-after household names.

Many support the end result, for example, because they believe in the value of a teaching-research nexus, but it can be inefficient. It also may be strategically unwise. Australia will not retain its impressive presence in international rankings if larger nations invest heavily in targeted ways and are not hung up on the idea that all universities are formally the same.

The US has had a clear set of higher education types for many decades, formalised in the Carnegie Classifications of Institutions of Higher Education.

China has a clear approach to funding different institutions for different purposes at different levels, such as the C9, 985 and 211 universities. Europe has a long heritage of different kinds of specialised institutions.

Wedge 1 and wedge 6 are empty, illustrating Australia’s lack of specialised universities.


But in the UK wedge 1 (research intensive universities) and wedge 6 (teaching intensive universities) are well populated, particularly the latter.

To illustrate Australia’s actual configuration, we use the Research and Education Efficiency Frontier Index developed by the Higher Education and Research Group that measures the productivity of institutions in published research and students taught per million dollars of expenditure. If we imagine a sector comprising six wedges, with wedge one being highly research-intensive and wedge six being highly teaching-intensive, Australia populates only wedges two to four, as chart one shows.

Without directly controlling for quality differentiation in research or teaching, this chart shows that in 2019 the University of Western Australia produced the most research per million dollars, at nearly six. The ANU taught the fewest students per million dollars and for that year was the sixth most productive in research publications per million dollars of investment.

Moving to the horizontal axis, education productivity, Victoria University led the way in 2019 with more than 60 students per million dollars of expenditure. VU has been building its teaching productivity and is possibly the nearest we come to glimpsing what could be done if funding and regulation really encouraged specialisation in teaching in Australia.

In Britain, the English universities are not under a research requirement to use the title university. Chart two maps 149 UK universities (with at least 1000 full-time equivalent students) in academic year 2018-19, converted to Australian dollars at June 2019. Unlike Australia, all six wedges are populated.

In wedge one (highly research-intensive) No.146 is the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, No.49 is Imperial College London, No.2 is University College London, No.25 is the University of Oxford and No.37 is the University of Cambridge.

In wedge six, (highly teaching-intensive) No.1 is the Open University, established for distance education and perhaps a special case. No.94 is Buckinghamshire New University, at more than 100 students per million dollars, and No.131 is the University College of Estate Management. There are more than 20 English institutions more productive in educating students than our most productive, VU. England, basically, has greater diversity and specialisation than Australia.

Now back to the efficiency point. Is it really sensible for, say, CQUniversity to be required to undertake research when its output is about 1.5 publications per million dollars spent, compared with UWA’s six?

Is it really sensible for UWA to be taking 20 full-time equivalent students per million dollars spent, noting that we have no universities in wedge one?

Other systems, including the English example cited here, allow their institutions to trade to their respective competitive advantages — a well-understood economic principle — and build impressive levels of productivity from “doing what they each do well”, rather than forcing internal trade-offs and cross-subsidies that create inefficiency and inequity within institutions.

Whether from the perspective of making the most efficient use of taxpayer money overall, or from the perspective of safeguarding our impressive position in international rankings, Australia could be taking, as Tudge implies, a different direction.

Stephen Parker, Keith Houghton, and Mark Clisby are with the Higher Education and Research Group.