There is a sense among many of the people I speak to at the moment that we have an opportunity to make transformational changes to the higher education sector in Australia. Between the review of research training, review of higher education research funding and the government’s upcoming innovation statement there is certainly a lot going on.
Throw into the mix global moves towards open access and a general discontent with the corporatisation of publicly funded research – publisher pay walls etc. – and unprecedented scrutiny over the role of things like peer review, how we measure and value research and the basic social function of publicly funded research, and it really does seem like an exciting time.
But how likely are we to agree on what this change should look like and what the direction of the Australian higher education sector should be? My time working in university research policy has taught me that it is difficult to deliver a consensus on most issues, and that there are diverse competing interests.
The latest figures indicate that there are around 102,000 full time equivalent staff in the sector – about 44,000 on the academic scale and the remaining 58,000 on non-academic duties. To put that in perspective, you could fit the Australian university workforce in the stands of the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
If one were to gauge the diversity of that crowd by the number of representative and peak bodies that exist, they would get the impression that this is indeed a very diverse group.
Within the universities there are disciplines which tend to be represented nationally by a Dean’s group – there are around 23 of these give or take. Many of the Dean’s groups tend to have sub-committees and groups, such as the Research Directors, etc.
Then there is Universities Australia and the various sub-groups therein (such as the DVCRs). Then the NTEU. Then groups like BHERT and ARMS and the list goes on and on and on! And almost all of these groups (plus many others) will have made submissions to each of the reviews currently underway, making a claim for unique interests that need to be represented.
Are the interests of the academic workforce in Australia really so diverse? And if so, why?
At some level, we are all working towards a few common goals, which include advancing and transmitting knowledge. And the way we understand this and do this doesn’t really differ from place to place – research and teaching at James Cook University looks pretty much the same as at the University of Western Australia. Nor does it change much from discipline to discipline – how we research and teach in social science is not that different to how we teach and research in, say, engineering.
Many of us know each other – we have worked together, met at conferences, served on review panels together, shared students, have mutual friends – and we would agree that we are not all that different from each other.
Then why would there appear to be so many competing interests?
I can account for much of this in two factors: first, academic work has always been a competitive sport where elites compete for prestige and resources and where demarcating differences between academic communities is the name of the game. The proliferation of more and more niche journals and the existence of Learned Academies and Societies are evidence enough of his.
Second, this is reflected back on the workforce in the mechanisms that govern academic work in Australia – from the market instruments of block funding to the national competitive grants programs, to the focus on elite discipline-based journals as the final destination of research. At each level of governance the focus is on competition.
These two factors make for a vicious circle in which competing interests flourish; what it masks is our shared goals and common interests. I would argue that a focus on the former has hindered our national research capacity, while recognising and building a future based on the latter would be to the benefit of all Australians, not just our university workforce.