Hunter Rawlings is a former President of Cornell, and currently the President of the Association of American Universities, a consortium of 60 of the leading North American universities.
He recently gave a fascinating talk Universities on the Defensive. He states
Our colleges and universities became the best in the world for four essential reasons:
1) They have consistently been uncompromising bastions of academic freedom and autonomy;
2) they are a crazily unplanned mix of public and private, religious and secular, small and large, low-cost and expensive institutions, all competing with each other for students and faculty, and for philanthropic and research support;
3) our major universities combined research and teaching to produce superior graduate programs, and with the substantial help of the federal government, built great research programs, particularly in science;
4) our good liberal-arts colleges patiently pursued great education the old-fashioned way: individual instruction, careful attention to reading and writing and mentoring, passion for intellectual inquiry, premium on original thought. ..... education of the whole person for citizenship in a culture.He points out how 2. particularly presents problems for "top down" management, such as pursued by China.
How do Australian universities rate on the above four ingredients?
I would say pretty poorly. In particular, they are fairly homogeneous, all competing to be the same thing, and largely driven by Federal government policy. For example, the Dawkins reforms of the late 1980s, including the abolition of tenure, changed them forever. This "neo-liberalism" has particularly undermined point 4. above.
Rawlings is skeptical about metrics.
Albert Einstein apparently kept a sign in his office that read, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” This aphorism applies all too well to our current rage for “accountability.” As Derek Bok [a former President of Harvard] points out in his recent book Higher Education in America,
“Some of the essential aspects of academic institutions — in particular the quality of the education they provide — are largely intangible, and their results are difficult to measure.”
Frankly, this is an obvious point to make, but all of us have to make it, and often, in today’s commodifying world. Quantity is much easier to measure than quality, so entire disciplines and entire academic pursuits are devalued under the current ideology, which puts its premium on productivity and efficiency, and above all else, on money, as the measure.I found reading Rawling's article quite refreshing. The message seems quite different from what I think I hear from Australian university leaders. But, perhaps I am mis-interpreting their messages.