Since Sydney University was established in 1850, universities, as part of the spectrum of post-secondary education, have supported Australia's rise as a dynamic and wealthy nation.
The value of post-secondary education in changing lives, creating opportunity and enhancing society – more than just a way to get a job – is indisputable.
The Colombo Plan, devised in the 1950s by the Australian government, is just one example of the power of education. It was conceived as not only key to the prosperity and security of our region but to fostering understanding and trust among our neighbours. Soft diplomacy at its finest.
Today, as we witness the shift of economic power to the Indo-Pacific region, we also see new national university sectors developing rapidly across the region. While this is a welcome development, it spells increased competition for Australian universities. Competition to attract students as well as to recruit and retain academic talent.
One aspect of this competitive environment is the international university rankings. For good or bad, these rankings are an important consideration for potential students when choosing a place to study and for academics when deciding where to carry out research or teach. Given that, we are fortunate that Australia is highly competitive. Just 0.3 per cent of the global population in Australia provides approximately 5 per cent of the top 500 universities worldwide in the key rankings.
In the recently published ARWU rankings, Group of Eight universities fared well. The Universities of Melbourne and Queensland were highest, ranked 38 and 55 respectively. ANU climbed 28 places, the University of Sydney 15 and UNSW up 31 places. Non-Go8 universities also recorded strong progress, a noteworthy example being Curtin University, which has risen more than 100 places since 2014.
But while Australian universities continue to climb up the league tables, many of our overseas counterparts are climbing as fast or faster. In the ARWU rankings, China, for example, had six universities enter the top 500.
Global university rankings are far from perfect measures of university quality or impact. With most being heavily research-based, they underplay areas Australian universities regard as high priorities, including outstanding teaching and learning, knowledge transfer, an egalitarian environment, contributions to thought leadership and global impact.
Nevertheless, we need to compete in these imperfect rankings because outstanding research is critical to the virtuous cycle that enables our universities to improve lives and have an enormous, positive social impact.
Research also brings economic benefit. As the recent London Economics report commissioned by the Group of Eight showed, far from being a charitable donation, funding of research is a wise investment, with a $10 return to the economy for every $1 of funding spent, yielding $24.5 billion pa for Australia.
It follows that, if we want Australian universities to stay competitive, and our economy and community to benefit at the same time, we need to continue investing in research.
The Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) is a visionary example of the type of investment needed. There are robust debates about the way the MRFF is being distributed, but no one doubts the wisdom of this investment in translating the discoveries flowing from National Health and Medical Research Council funded research.
A similar investment is needed in non-medical research funding to translate Australian Research Council funded discoveries. That investment could come in the form of a new Australian Translational Research Fund (ATRF). Public funding of research in Australia is not enough. It is noteworthy and right that public investment is matched by university funding from international student fees, partnership with industry and philanthropy.
These options would help reverse the recent decrease in national spending on research and development, fill the current gap in the discovery-to-commercialisation research pipeline and help Australia to further increase the economic return from research creating new jobs and opportunities. The London Economics report estimated that every $500 million of additional research investment in Go8 universities would yield $5.3 billion in return.
The virtuous cycle
Public funding of research in Australia is not enough. It is noteworthy and right that public investment is matched by university funding from international student fees, partnership with industry and philanthropy.
There lies a virtuous cycle. Investing more in research will improve outputs; better outputs will improve our rankings; better rankings ensure we remain attractive to international students, industry partners and philanthropic supporters; and all of this funds more high-quality research and the benefits that brings both economically and for our society.
While we strive to improve the quality and scale of research activity we also need to place greater emphasis on recognising, valuing and rewarding those who deliver outstanding teaching.
In a perfect world, we would have a far more sophisticated global ranking system that would reflect all of these elements that make a university great.
In the absence of a ranking nirvana, Australian universities can continue to climb in global research rankings without compromising the range of other priorities that are equally important. These include recognising, nurturing and rewarding those who make major contributions in areas such as teaching and learning, knowledge transfer, thought leadership, global development and promoting equality, diversity and inclusion.
In our current political climate of uncertainty, strong institutions such as universities matter even more. Being innovative and creative while also providing stability and not being distracted by political ups and downs is an attribute of a sector that is confident in and committed to its mission.
Originally published here in the Australian Financial Review.