By DAVID MYTON

A new study has opened a window into the thinking of Australia’s higher education leaders. It shows that while university bosses and their teams generally are upbeat and optimistic about the future they do have some concerns about where the sector might be heading.

Their views are detailed in Australian Universities at a Crossroads: Insights from Their Leaders and Implications for the Future (pdf), from the Berkeley Centre for Studies in Higher Education, authored by William B Lacy, Gwilym Croucher, Andre Brett and Romina Mueller.

Conducted in 2015-2016, the study involves interviews with 117 university and policy leaders, including chancellors, vice-chancellors, DVCs, PVCs, analysts, and academic staff at 22 institutions in 12 cities.

The general consensus was that the sector was performing well and that it played a key role in Australian society.

However, it was noted that the sector faced “significant issues” and “major changes” with one academic leader declaring: “I’m not at all confident that the university or anything like its current form will be here for even 20 years.”

Different groups also had different views, say the authors, with, for example Group of Eight leaders attaching more importance to international rankings in comparison with Australian Technology Network leaders, who viewed technology transfer and student accessibility as more significant.

Many leaders raised the need to review and restructure the sector and to consider merging or reducing the number of institutions. One regional university VC declared: “Australia has too many universities for its population. It has too many campuses. It has too much duplication and too many trying to do the same thing.”

The authors say a “frequently stated frustration” centred on the perceived lack of “stable and informed government public policy” for higher education, with one leader saying: “We have moved away from what were at that time visionary and long-term policy directions into an incredibly short-term ad hoc type of policy, almost policy by stealth and completely disjointed.”

Another said: “So what is the biggest shaping force in Australian Higher Education? The fact that there is no policy.”

While leaders were generally optimistic and “realistically recognize the challenges of leadership”, there were some frustrations around the sector’s organisation and structure.

One senior figure stated that for him “the worst enemy of this flourishing system is by far the people in the system itself. It is fine to be myopic when you are a small cottage industry … But when you are a mass industry … you just can’t afford to be myopic because there is a lot of public money, a lot of time and energy, and a lot of private money tied up in it”.

Another senior figure expressed frustrations on the state of strategic planning and policy, saying: “… I think Australia used to have a very proud history of policy development, policy analysis and being quite serious about evaluating what they were doing. Over the last ten years, we have moved into a sense of secrecy, of not wanting to be scrutinized on the logic of the policies and their internal consistency. We have moved away from a time of visionary and long-term policy directions into an incredibly short-term ad hoc type of policy …”

Leaders viewed developments in research as generally positive but noted that the system had grown considerably in quantity, quality and diversity with accompanying challenges.

One institute director “expressed succinctly one perspective held by many of the interviewed leaders”, stating: “We still have a lot of universities who push their staff to publish, publish, publish. I don’t think that is a really good thing. In a system that is massively growing, research is unevenly distributed and research capacities are unevenly distributed. Why push half the staff who will never be able to do anything significant in research towards mediocre journals, towards research proposals that never have the chance of being funded and are just clogging up our system …”

Several leaders spoke about changing university staff and the human capital needs of the university, one saying: “We are not doing what we should be doing in terms of providing a climate for our staff to flourish … we have post-docs who are in completely uncertain conditions. They all depend on their supervisors getting the next grant, so they can be employed again … We have more than 50 percent of our staff being casuals. The majority of teaching is done by sessional staff. I don’t think that is a sensible and a good thing.”

Many leaders voiced concern about federal funding of universities, with one vice-chancellor saying: “… There is a race to the bottom here in terms of federal support of the universities. The public spending on education now is 30 percent below the mean in the OECD … There’s no appetite among parties of both political persuasions. They have different rhetoric but what it amounts to is that neither of them thinks there is any votes in universities …”

For full context read the report in full here.