Teaching-only universities are impossible creatures

There has never been an Australian teaching-only university. As with many countries outside Germany, before WWII research wasn’t an institutional role for universities but an activity which some academics practised as part of their scholarly endeavour.

Research first became institutionalised in 1945 when the University of Melbourne offered the first Australian PhD. By 1950 eight PhDs had been awarded around the country. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that Australian universities discarded Cardinal Newman’s, view expressed persuasively in The Idea of a University, that:

The nature of the case and the history of philosophy combine to recommend to us this division of intellectual labour between Academies and Universities. To discover and to teach are distinct functions; they are also distinct gifts, and are not commonly found united in the same person. He, too, who spends his day in dispensing his existing knowledge to all comers is unlikely to have either leisure or energy to acquire new.

This lingering fidelity to the primacy of cultivating minds was expunged thoroughly in 1967 with the establishment of colleges of advanced education, Australia’s analogues of UK polytechnics. These were established without a research role, and while they gradually were permitted to offer bachelor degrees and coursework masters, only in their last years did a few aberrant colleges manage to offer doctorates.

Universities promoted their research role to highlight their difference from colleges and reinforced their distinctive research role when colleges were absorbed into the university system from 1989. Former education minister John Dawkins’ unified national system of higher education has been widely criticised as establishing a uniform sector, but his White Paper sought to establish three types of members of the unified national system: institutions with 8,000 equivalent full time students “with the resources to undertake research across a significant proportion of its profile”, institutions with 5,000 students which would have “some specialised research activity”, and institutions with 2,000 students which would be funded for teaching only.

Bigger is better

Much to Dawkins’ surprise, institutions that had steadfastly defended their autonomy in previous rationalisation attempts agreed to amalgamate to ensure university status as parts of – if not as – independent universities.

Undertaking substantial research in at least three areas is currently required for recognition as a university in Australia. This is one of the issues being considered in the Federal Government’s snappily titled review of the higher education provider category standards.

Advocates of elite universities want teaching-only universities so that the elites may get even a higher concentration of research funding. Simple functionalists want teaching-only universities to label clearly institutions’ different roles in social reproduction. Advocates of explicit diversity want teaching-only universities to make obvious the diversity among universities that is evident only upon analysis. And some private providers want to become teaching-only universities to increase their attractiveness to students, particularly international students.

While Australia is unusual in requiring its universities to conduct original research in at least three broad fields of study in which they award research higher degrees, this has had some good though unintended consequences.

An extraordinary 23 or 58% of Australia’s 40 universities are in the top 500 of the academic ranking of world universities. This is much higher than the 31% of UK and 21% of Canada’s universities in the top 500. Most US states don’t distinguish university as clearly from other baccalaureate granting institutions as the Commonwealth countries. The US has an impressive 140 institutions in the top 500, but on a different measure this accounts for just over 5% of all US baccalaureate granting institutions.

The broad dispersion of research universities throughout Australia reduces its ability to develop a Harvard or MIT, but it encourages the diffusion of research among more regions, industries and businesses, and it makes research universities far more accessible to students than would otherwise be the case. Around 55% of undergraduate students in Australia and Canada are in a top 500 university, far more than the 37% and 25% in ranked institutions in the UK and USA.

Bachelor students enrolled in world top 500 institutions, 2017

CountryTop 500% of studentsall students
Australia545,54356971,664
Canada548,830541,025,505
UK594,455371,621,725
USA2,424,692259,650,856

Colleges weren’t funded to research. Even for teaching they were funded at a substantially lower rate than universities. This persists today in jurisdictions that formally segment a sector of teaching-only universities. The  California State University system is funded substantially less for teaching similar undergraduate programs at the University of California system.

Incentives misdirected

Even at its height, the Australian Government’s financial incentives to reward institutions for excellent teaching performance were only 10% of its funds to reward research performance.

The government ended institutions’ teaching performance funding in 2011, and in 2016 it ‘saved’ $21 million by closing the Office of Learning and Teaching which supported valuable system-wide research in teaching and learning. The government is currently consulting on partly funding universities from 2020 by an indeterminate amount on factors such as their number of students from equity backgrounds, student satisfaction, student completion and the rates at which graduates are employed and proceed to further full-time study.

Neither students, nor the public, and least of all academics were deceived by the disingenuous rhetorical flourish that colleges were “equal to but different from” universities. The opponents of teaching only universities may legitimately argue that they will start valuing teaching-only universities when their proponents do.

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