Universities: how important is the evolution of purpose?

18th November 2014

A number of discussions at recent events have raised the question about the purpose of universities when translation and impact have been considered.  This is an interesting and topical subject that may benefit from discussions within the wider community.

As time passes and the beliefs and opinions of society evolve our legislative frameworks, policies and political expectations change to reflect the current views and acceptable standards of today.

Our universities are not immune to these changes. They have also evolved to reflect the needs of communities. Many of these changes are encouraged, supported or enforced through funding and measurement systems established by governments.

Universities must be registered by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency and they receive significant funding from government. Not unlike legislative change, sometimes systems, culture and planning can be playing a form of catch up with major current drivers taking precedence over emerging changes. Sometimes rapid change can also lead to unexpected consequences.

Australian Universities established in the mid 19th Century originally focused on education and expertise in existing knowledge. This evolved through the 19th century to include research and contributions to the generation of new knowledge that is now a major determinant of success and ranking of universities.

In 1992, the Higher Education Council in its report Higher Education, Achieving Quality noted that Australian universities share the common principal purposes;

The third point above highlighted to evolution towards delivering community benefits.

Today Universities Australia refers to the role of Universities in society as preparing people for the highly skilled jobs of tomorrow, and to be leaders in developing and adapting new knowledge to revitalise our economy, strengthen our society and tackle the many problems we will face.

Current activities and proposed changes in higher education sector not only impact upon our universities but also our medical research institutes (many are administered by universities) and our peak scientific body CSIRO.

These activities and others (such as philanthropic support) are refocussing the lens, sharpening the focus on a greater expectation on delivering impact from research and probing the activities of our universities. See The Age article, University status comes at a high price.

The ability to apply or enable the application of research findings is commonly referred to as translation. It often requires different skill sets, resources and supporting structures to be efficient and effective.

Translation also requires new and additional funding mechanisms, measures and rewards directed towards the relevant components of the various translation pathways to enable change.

The deregulation of student fees and the necessity for private funding however may be a significant distraction from the evolution of purpose. While society may be focusing more on purpose our institutions are needing to focus more on income.

In October, The Grattan Institute released the report Mapping Australian Higher Education 2104-1215. The report highlights the need for our universities to access private income, particularly referring to the sectors immediate focus on the deregulation of student fees.

The university sector is currently experiencing a period of uncertainty and rapid change. Change can provide opportunity, but it can also disrupt evolutionary changes and will shape how our universities continue to provide benefits to society.

Government, industry and philanthropy all have an opportunity to strategically support our universities not only in times of change but in their evolution.

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