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World-class research at the center of Australia’s higher education shake-up

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Australia wants to increase the value of its higher education brand.

Universities in Australia must consistently produce high-quality research in the areas they teach to retain their education provider statuses, according to new recommendations endorsed Tuesday by the government.

The proposal put forward in the Review of Australia’s Higher Education Provider Category by Professor Peter Coaldrake AO is an effort to lift the Australia brand and protect the interests of students, especially in an increasingly competitive jobs landscape.

Coaldrake has said the purpose isn’t to punish underperforming institutions but to improve current standards. The government has also offered its assurance that support would be provided to the underperformers.

“So I do not see it as something that this will lead to any universities missing out. What it will require is the government working with those universities to make sure that they meet that requirement,” Education Minister Dan Tehan was quoted saying in Brisbane Times upon endorsing the panel’s proposal.

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In its current form, Australia’s provider category standards do not define the quantity or quality of research conducted within each field to justify “university” status. It merely stipulates that for an institution to hold the title, it must provide postgraduate research degrees in at least three broad fields.

This means universities in Australia can do the bare minimum in order to meet university status requirements, such as producing just one uncited research paper in each of the three broad fields in order to keep the title.

The proposal states that universities must do world-standard research in at least three, or at least, 30 percent, of the broad fields of education in which it teaches, whichever is greater. This rises to 50 percent by 2030.

In addition, the proposal also recommended reducing current education provider categories from six to four. Coaldrake has said that the current number of categories not only confuses students but also takes away the value of the university status in Australia and doesn’t meet with job needs. 

This has to change so the Australian university brand keeps up with current demands.

“The word ‘university’ has got to mean something. We’ve got to strengthen that brand. Universities have to be associated with a high level of research and teaching. We’ve got to look at what it means to be ‘fit for purpose’,” Coaldrake said previously in Australian Financial Review.

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Australia’s universities have since welcomed the new standards. Catriona Jackson, who heads the Universities Australia peak body as its chief executive, said it was pleasing to see a clearer recognition of research as a key characteristic of universities.

She pointed out that Australia’s institutions were already renowned for producing world-class research, with 2.6 percent of all published scientific research conducted by the country. This is despite the Australian population only making up 0.3 percent of the world population.

“We especially welcome the recommendation that reinforces the nexus between teaching and research as a defining feature of an Australian university,” she said.

Jackson added, however, that the proposed changes would need to be carefully worked through by the sector.

“We will work with government on an implementation plan to ensure universities have time to meet any new requirements.”

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On the decision to simplify the Higher Education Provider category, Jackson said it made sense as it is currently difficult to differentiate between the different providers.

“UA thanks Emeritus Professor Coaldrake for his detailed consultations with the sector and Education Minister Dan Tehan for listening carefully to the sector’s views on the review.”

The review is among several fresh initiatives being introduced by the government to revamp the structure and standards of Australia’s post-secondary institutions.