Unis now but maybe not for long

“The despondency and existential fear induced by the COVID-19 pandemic has probably overshadowed another challenge that will face post-pandemic universities.  Will they have to pass a new test to retain their title?”

Vin Massaro puts the question on the agenda in a new paper for the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education.

Professor Massaro points to the Coaldrake review of provider category standards, adopted by the Commonwealth, which requires universities to achieve world-standard research in a minimum three fields in which they teach (CMM October 16, December 11 2019).

But how it came to pass that to be a university in Australian a HE provider must research as well as teach has more to do with time and circumstances than carefully constructed policy.

Professor Massaro explains that when the unified national system was established in 1989 the previous teaching colleges did not have to meet any test of their research performance, with funding provided so they could improve over time. But now the nexus appears immutable, universities teach and research.

It need not be so he suggests, pointing out that research is uneven in research-intensive universities and that, “teaching excellence across a broad range of academic areas should be sufficient to qualify as a university.” He also argues universities should choose research specialities where they win competitive funding.

As to the new standards, “they are unduly restrictive in light of what has occurred since the end of the binary system of higher education, and risk creating a group of apparently ‘failing’ universities which have operated successfully as de facto teaching intensive universities for some thirty years.”

There’s another reason why the new research requirement may not be such a great idea for government. “As some existing or aspirant universities inevitably fail the test and lose or fail to gain the title some will seek recourse to the courts to test the validity of the measure.”

Whatever the policy basis this would be terrible politics.