What is a university for? It’s a hoary old question, one that pops up with persistent regularity – if not explicitly then by implication. There have been two fine examples of this in the space of a couple of weeks or so, the implied answers poles apart in their conclusions.

Answer No 1 is suggested in the recently released Review of Australia’s Research Training System by the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA). It is essentially pragmatic, specifically in regard to the Higher Degree by Research training system.

ACOLA says such engagement is among the lowest when measured against OECD competitor countries, a situation it describes as extremely concerning for a nation that strives to develop a vibrant knowledge based economy.

There is high overlap between the skills that employers report they need, and those gained during HDR training. Nonetheless, employers perceive the training of Doctoral candidates, particularly in transferable skills, as inadequately preparing graduates for careers in industry.”

Entirely reasonably because public money is at stake, it notes that poor data on the performance of Australia’s HDR training system “makes it difficult to understand what return is generated from Australian Government investment of more than $1 billion annually and how best to go about improving the system”. It adds:

Increased industry engagement will require a greater proportion of HDR training opportunities to be focused on an industry-defined research problem, take place in industry settings, or involve an industry supervisor for the project. Funding mechanisms should be used to drive the significant change required. Australia’s research effort is considered to be of high quality by global standards, but our translation of research into commercial and societal outcomes tends to be poor.”

The report meticulously records its key findings and proposes practical solutions to improve HDR collaboration with business and industry and other stakeholders. It is hard to argue with the thrust of its conclusions and recommendations.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, went into a bat for the academic traditions of universities.

Speaking at the annual conference of the European Universities Association in Galway, Higgins acknowledged the great societal changes impacting on higher education. However, it was crucial to recognise the “essential and timeless” resource of universities as social institutions and as intellectual infrastructure for future generations rather than “merely as centres for production” for the prevailing economic system. He added:

 The challenge we face is that we must confront an erroneous and prevalent perception that the necessary focus of higher education must be on that which is utilitarian and immediately applicable. Such a view sees the primary objective of the university, and those who study within it, as being in preparation for a specific role within the labour market, often at the cost of the development of life-enhancing skills such as creativity, analytical thinking, and clarity in written and spoken expression ...”

Is Higgins right – is there too much focus on the “utilitarian and immediately applicable”? Or is there a false bifurcation in the “what is a university for” debate, and that it is entirely possible for different models to co-exist?

Read the ACOLA report in full here (pdf) and President Higgins’s speech here.

-DM