Each year, the days leading up to the Budget announcement seem to be Groundhog Day for higher education funding in Australia. Leaders of Australia's most prestigious universities were appalled by the latest funding cuts as they claimed the proposal was at odds with the Prime Minister's innovation agenda.
My view on this is different. Whilst some recommendations such as fee increases deserve a reassessment, I believe that other key measures aimed at improving efficiencies in university operations and tying university funding to performance are good economic policies.
Australian higher education is a $48 billion industry and the nation's largest service export with international students contributing $21 billion in fee revenue in 2016. Several top Australian universities now have a 'student' base of more than 50,000 and are generating total revenues in excess of $2 billion.
A recent study by Deloitte Access Economics concluded that university funding growth has outpaced rises in operating costs. Given the increasing scale and scope, one would have thought that some of the major research universities would be able to achieve significant economies of scale.
To improve efficiencies and lift productivity of our globally renowned universities, I propose a re-evaluation of the roles of Australian research universities to follow what I call the 4I model: 'Inspire' the next generation of leaders, 'Intersect with Industry' needs, and 'Innovate' the next game-changing technological trend.
Universities need to inspire students as well as teach
With increasing access to reliable information online, the future role of universities should evolve from merely dispersing knowledge to providing inspiration for students.
Universities need more inspiring educators who can cultivate curiosity in the classroom and develop students' ability to ask the right questions. The introduction of a Teaching Excellence Framework in the UK is a great initiative to improve teaching quality in higher education, and should be adopted in Australia.
I believe that the best educators are those who wear their passions on their sleeves. One of the most inspiring lecturers I had during my undergraduate studies was Professor Alex Filippenko who teaches astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California at Berkeley. Apart from exuding intense enthusiasm at every lecture, Alex is regularly featured on popular television shows, TED talks and podcasts. In the words of the poet William Butler Yeats, "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."
Universities create value by intersecting with industry needs
In recent years, there has been a growing focus for university research to align with the direction of industry in a concerted effort to address complex societal challenges.
One effective way for universities to engage with industry is to find out where the industry is heading in the short term, say five years, and then implement a research plan to intersect with the industry roadmap in two to three years' time.
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