By Chris Wallace
Are you kind of sad about the University of Melbourne overtaking ANU on the Shanghai Jiao Tong Academic Ranking of World Universities? I am. It seems only yesterday that ANU Chancellor Gareth Evans congratulated Ian Chubb for having “consolidated our position as Australia’s No 1 university”. In fact, it was just six months ago, on 17 February, at Chubb’s farewell dinner.
The downgrade came at a bad time, the same week my team moved beyond being an embarrassment in this year’s AFL competition to reveal serious structural dysfunctionality. In the process of sidelining three times best-and-fairest player Kane Cornes, it emerged that Port Power isn’t really the authentic iteration of the legendary Port Adelaide Football Club (PAFC) after all. Rather it’s a team the AFL has licensed the South Australian National Football League (SANFL) to own and run, and whose directors outnumber Port representatives on the board.
There’s a move on at Port to claim the power over Port Power they should always have had, and which they say is essential for the team’s future. If Port Power is disconnected from the culture that made Port so dominant in its home league, their argument goes, it won’t live up to its historical promise. Port is older than and has a superior premiership record historically to even the justly famous Collingwood. When an organisation is that successful there are usually institutionally-specific factors involved, things that shouldn’t be messed with if you want the same kind of results. It got me thinking about ANU.
ANU’s strength lies in its origins as a research university with just a small number of undergraduate students tacked on, structurally separate from the research schools. The research focus and large number of pure research jobs that went with it helped ANU attract top flight academics. No teaching burden for most of them meant more time for research. More research meant more publications, citations and prestigious awards (Nobel Prizes, Fields Medals and so on). More publications, citations and gongs meant a higher world ranking for the ANU than any other Australian university. Until now.
Several things happened. The high end academics who took up those pure research jobs are aging and retiring. Other universities have become more like the ANU – that is, more research intensive – partly driven by the federal government funding incentives and the way ranking systems work. That’s made them more competitive when it comes to attracting the best staff. And although it’s too recent to have impacted on this week’s rankings downgrade, the integration of the ANU’s research schools with those parts of the university that teach undergraduates means what made ANU look, feel and achieve differently has now gone. Just as other universities are striving to be more like the original ANU, ANU has restructured to become more like the rest of the pack.
Will this organizational re-jig turn out to be a net plus? Or given that research intensity is now the name of the game and that ANU is in fierce competition for the best academics in Australia and the world, did we tear up our ultimate ace when the university’s research and teaching arms were integrated? I’ve written previously that it was a good decision but, on reflection, my thinking like that decision may have been tactical, not strategic.
I remember asking a former ANU vice-chancellor what proportion of the university’s budget was devoted to undergraduates. His answer: 10 percent. My response: Why bother having undergraduates then? His answer: If we didn’t, we’d be CSIRO.
Perhaps that would be a good thing. In terms of competitive strategy, perhaps taking the original concept of the ANU to its logical conclusion and making it a purely research university where the only students were post-graduate ones would have been smarter. ANU’s distinction within an unfortunately homogenising Australian university system would then be clear, and the source of its original competitive advantage redoubled. It’s not the end of the world. Aggregate rankings are crude measures. They’re indicative, however, and we were happy enough to trumpet them when ANU was unequivocally Australia’s number one.
University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis puzzles over the reason Australians desperately want their athletes to be world’s best but don’t seem to care whether our universities are. Gareth Evans has an each way bet, chancellor of the old number one (ANU) and concurrently a professorial fellow of the new number one (Melbourne). How ANU’s new Vice-Chancellor Ian Young – a Raiders fan – handles it all will be fascinating to watch unfold.
This article first appeared in the Canberra Times on 20 August, 2011