The quality of university research and what makes it “world class” is going under increasing scrutiny.
OPINION: The Australian minister for education recently announced the outcome of a review of provider category standards in higher education.
The author of the review makes recommendations designed to ensure the quality of tertiary education delivered there is up to scratch.
With education, mainly tertiary, being one of Australia’s biggest exports, quality control is paramount if customers – read international students – are going to continue paying big bucks to study there. It’s all about protecting the “brand” to keep attracting foreign students.
Sensible business acumen I guess, because tertiary education – teaching international students – is one of Australia’s biggest export earners.
An important recommendation from the review is that, to be called a university an institution must produce “world-class” research in a minimum of three, or a third, of the disciplines in which it provides qualifications. This threshold would rise to 50 per cent of disciplines over the next 10 years.
Some Australian universities will have trouble meeting this standard, mainly those newer institutions evolved from amalgams of institutes of technology and colleges of education. They have less research activity, rather concentrating on teaching undergraduate students to derive income.
So what makes research “world class”, how might the universities at risk of losing their important moniker respond, and what might it mean for us over here?
Sensibly, something that is world class is of interest to the rest of the world.
Broadly, there are two types of research – discovering permanent knowledge, what could be described as “archival” research. These are the creation of facts which stand the test of time. Think E=mc 2 or the structure of DNA is a double helix. Textbook stuff.
The other type of research produces information only related to a particular point in time, or a small group of people. A survey or questionnaire, for example, might ask a person from Auckland who they voted for last Monday, or what they had for breakfast then. The results of these surveys might be interesting to our political parties or New Zealand supermarkets, but they only relate to Auckland and only last Monday, because people will change what they eat and who they vote for over time.
Of course it is not quite as black and white as that. Some surveys can produce knowledge that is relevant for much longer and even indicate something archival. And textbook knowledge should always be re-tested to see if it still holds over time. Nevertheless, it can be useful to partition research this way when you question its usefulness.
It is easy to see then that study of Auckland breakfast habits is not going be “world class”, because the rest of the world doesn’t care what Aucklanders eat on Monday morning. On the other hand, creating a vaccine for melanoma will be of interest to many other countries, because that knowledge can help their population as well as ours.
Producing new archival knowledge is becoming increasingly expensive, often involving large pieces of specialised equipment, and international research groups. Think Large Hadron Collider, International Space Station, or the Mayo Clinic. Surveys, on the other hand, are cheap and because of that it’s something we can do in New Zealand, and do fairly well.
Although we have pockets of researchers doing not only world-class, but world-leading archival research with cutting-edge kit, the research of many New Zealand academics is restricted to surveys and questionnaires, producing research relevant only to New Zealand and only at a point in time. So although this inward focus may be interesting and important to us, it’s of less interest to the world, and therefore not world class.
Education, primarily that delivered by universities, is our second biggest export earner. If we were to go through a similar exercise here to protect “brand education NZ”, then our institutions, which have primarily an inward focus, would be caught wanting.
Steve Stannard is a former professor of exercise physiology at Massey University