What do we want and expect from universities in Australia?
Should universities focus on teaching, research, or a combination of both? To what extent should they engage with public policy, and should researchers be focusing on practical problems as opposed to new theoretical insights? What is the right mix of domestic and foreign students, and how much should universities protect their students from ideas that are challenging or controversial?
As academics, we have grappled with these questions throughout our careers. As the Vice Chancellor of The Australian National University (ANU), one of us has to balance these trade-offs every day. The modern Australian university is very responsive to the priorities of the government of the day, whilst maintaining the independence that gives our research credibility and the ability to work beyond the immediate and into the future. We also frequently ask our students and staff about their views on how their university is faring, and whether it is meeting their needs and aspirations. We rarely, however, ask the general public what they want from universities, and how these demands might be changing in response to economic, demographic, and societal trends.
In April, ANU asked a representative sample of more than 2000 Australian adults what their views were on the role of the university, and how confident they were that universities were living up to these expectations. We asked Australians who were currently attending university, those who had graduated and finished their studies, and those who had never been enrolled. We found some results that were heartening, but other results that were quite challenging.
The public expects a lot from Australian universities, as they should. More than 90 per cent of respondents thought universities should "train young Australians for the future workforce" and "develop new ideas". But almost as many people think universities should "provide an environment for controversial ideas to be expressed and debated" and "investigate the fundamental questions of the time".
There is generally less support for what we might refer to as the public-policy role of universities. Only 63.4 per cent of respondents felt that one of the roles of universities in Australia is to "hold governments to account", and 71.5 per cent felt that universities should "evaluate the effectiveness of government policies". In our view, these aren't areas that universities should step back from, but ones that we need to make a stronger case for.
The general public has a relatively high level of confidence in Australian universities. Not only is there greater confidence in universities than there is in the press, government, the public service, major Australian companies and banks (all of which receive a low level of confidence), but respondents to the ANUpoll indicated a greater confidence in universities than they did in schools.
There was slightly less support for the proposition that universities are teaching in the right way, particularly for the future labour market. A slight majority of respondents (60.0 per cent) agreed or strongly agreed that universities were teaching students the important things they need to know and there is some evidence that this percentage is declining. We need to continually update and adapt our curriculum as the demands on us change.
One of the key policy debates about universities at the moment is the role of foreign students on campus. We should state up front that we value the contribution that international students have made to our universities, and to us personally as students, academics and administrators. However, surveys like the ANUpoll give us the opportunity to gauge broader public sentiment. Here, the results are a little more mixed.
The poll shows a little over five in 10 Australians (52.8 per cent) think the current mix between foreign and domestic students is about right. Very few Australians think that the proportion of foreign students should be increased, whereas a little under five in 10 (46.1 per cent) think universities should be educating fewer foreign students and more domestic students.
In a very important finding, those Australians who were currently attending university were far less likely to think that foreign students should be reduced compared to those who had never attended. In our view, this finding supports the notion that exposure to foreign students brings a more positive attitude and that domestic students who interact with foreign students on a daily basis are actually quite supportive of their foreign peers attending universities in Australia.
Ultimately, this ANUpoll is a demonstration of our aspirations here at ANU. It is the perfect example of how ANU, as the national university, seeks to inform everyday Australians, our university colleagues in Australia and internationally, and our nation's leaders about the complexities and opportunities we face. By making the data and findings freely available to all researchers through the Australian Data Archive, we hope to contribute to the design of the best universities possible for 21st-century Australia.
- Professor Brian P. Schmidt AC is Vice-Chancellor of The Australian National University.
- Associate Professor Nicholas Biddle is based in the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods and led the latest ANUpoll.
- Findings from the ANUpoll on the role of universities can be found here.