The University of Canberra's vice-chancellor says world-class research should be the main driving force in universities rather than filling employment market gaps, as the institution swiftly rises up the international rankings.
Professor Paddy Nixon puts the university's new ranking of 18th in the Times Higher Education Young University Ranking, up from 34th in 2019, down to striking the right balance between a commitment to education and a growing emphasis on quality research. The ranking places UC in the top three nationally for universities younger than 50 years.
The reputation boost comes as the university is grappling with dual financial hits from the coronavirus pandemic and the shake-up of higher education funding announced by the federal government.
Professor Nixon said it was important for research to be at the core of a university's purpose, despite a push from the government to funnel students into courses that will make them employable.
"Universities are for me fundamentally about educating for life as opposed to educating for a particular profession and that's really why you need a research element because what you do is research informed teaching.
"I think universities will universally take a view, and I say that very carefully, we need to be educating not just for the immediate employment needs for a country but for the long-term good of a country."
It does mean some students incur more debt than others. And I think therein lies a conversation we need to have in Australia.UC vice-chancellor Paddy Nixon on the government's uni fee changes
A lot of uncertainty surrounds the state of the university's finances over the coming years as coronavirus restrictions block new international students from entering the pipeline. A $32 million deficit is predicted for this year, rising to about $58 million next year.
About 2400 international students are currently enrolled, with 450 stranded overseas when the travel restrictions were imposed. Some of the older students will have the prospect of returning as part of a pilot program next month.
The university is expecting a surge in demand for domestic places next year but with funding capped by the government, the institution will have to figure out how to finance it.
"You would imagine if you have more demand from students and there aren't sufficient spaces for students to be accepted then that does push the competition up and in theory would push the ATARs up but we as an institution don't make our decisions just on ATAR."
University of Canberra is still working through the implications of the changes to funding announced last week. One thing is becoming clear: budgets are going to be tighter than ever before.
"On straight domestic students, absolutely we will see a reduction in the amount of fee income received from the federal government and from students. At this point it's about a 5-6 per cent reduction for that group of students that we will receive, which is a real challenge."
Professor Nixon does not see changes to student contributions having a significant impact on the make-up of the student body, however he believes it raises questions about equity between students and disciplines.
"It does mean some students incur more debt than others. And I think therein lies a conversation we need to have in Australia: Do we believe that's the right thing to do? And on the face of it you can't say that it would be."