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Universities: Make teaching a priority

By Andrew Norton - posted Monday, 15 November 2004

Universities suffer from “mission statement” clutter. They are supposed to teach, research, and engage in community service, and they have to worry about equity, ethics and the environment while doing so. Juggling these competing priorities is made more difficult by limited access to funds.

Increasingly leading figures are wondering whether more focus, at least for some institutions within higher education, might be a good thing. In a previous Online Opinion article Glyn Davis calls for another look at the rules defining a “university” and Brendan Nelson has said that he is sympathetic to teaching-focused institutions.

But would this lead to better teaching? Some academics say that research informs teaching making researchers better teachers. That may be true to an extent. But what matters is not whether there are any benefits from teaching academics also conducting research, but whether there are net benefits. With finite hours in the day, it also seems plausible that research takes time away from teaching.


How do we assess the merits of these views? One way is too look at the surveys of completing students carried out each year by the Graduate Careers Council of Australia. They consistently find that the main research universities, members of the Group of Eight, rank relatively lowly for teaching quality. (The Good Universities Guide provides an annual summary of this data.) The American National Survey of Student Engagement has similarly found that colleges that do less research tend to be rated better by their students for teaching.
So it looks as if teaching-focused universities may be worth a try. But given that most universities are still going to see themselves as research and teaching institutions, is the balance between these two priorities right? I have long argued in detail in my book The Unchained University that it is not.

The basic policy problem is that universities are rewarded financially for performance in research, but not teaching. Until the end of 2004, universities were paid the same amount for their HECS students whether they did an outstanding, a mediocre or a poor job. Since the latter two options are cheaper and easier, the incentive is to accept them as the norm.

The latest results of the “completing student” survey for 2003, confirm the problem. When asked whether they agreed with the proposition that “the staff put a lot of time into commenting on my work” only 43 per cent did. Responses to the statement that “my lecturers were extremely good at explaining things” were marginally better on 45 per cent. The best results were for sharpening analytical skills and improving skills in written communication, both of which scored 70 per cent agreement.

The Nelson reforms, to be implemented in stages from 2005, will have mixed effects on teaching incentives. Heavy penalties for exceeding quotas of Commonwealth-supported students take us in the wrong direction. They are an incentive not to attract additional students. Also probably moving in the wrong direction is a Learning and Teaching Performance Fund that is likely to overly focus universities on performing well on a small number of indicators.

On the positive side for teaching incentives, the FEE-HELP scheme, which permits full-fee students to borrow money from the Commonwealth, will enlarge the pool of students that are financially very attractive to universities. I have argued elsewhere that the influence of fee-paying students largely explains an upward trend in student satisfaction since the mid-1990s. Universities being able to charge their HECS students up to 25 per cent more than current HECS will help shift incentives towards students as well.

It is hard to know exactly how these negatives and positives will balance out. My guesstimate is that the positives will outweigh the negatives, but that progress will be much slower than it could be with better policies.


There are several elements to a more teaching-focused university system. Teaching-only universities are one, but more important are changes to all universities’ incentive structures. No university ought to be guaranteed a minimum number of students, as they effectively are under the Nelson reforms. This just encourages them to take students for granted, as they have in the past. 

More controversially, price caps on HECS students ought to be abolished. I doubt many universities would take advantage of this. A significant minority did not take the existing opportunity to increase prices, and most of those that did suffered considerable angst before doing so. Though high prices would remain the exception, they are necessary for labour intensive high-quality teaching for those students who would find this worthwhile.

For most universities, their goals will continue to compete as well as complement each other. We cannot avoid this multi-tasking. But we can get a better balance between university functions, and especially between research and teaching. Letting universities and Commonwealth-supported students allocate places and set prices, as already happens for full-fee students, is the way to do it.

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About the Author

Andrew Norton is a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and Director of the CIS' Liberalising Learning research programme.

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