Hum­bold­tian model in dan­ger, sum­mit hears

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THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE - John.ross@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­

A rank­ings-driven ra­tio­nal­i­sa­tion of higher ed­u­ca­tion’s key func­tions risks un­der­min­ing the fun­da­men­tal model of the re­search uni­ver­sity, Aus­tralian Na­tional Uni­ver­sity vice-chan­cel­lor Brian Sch­midt has warned.

Speak­ing at the Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion World Aca­demic Sum­mit at the Na­tional Uni­ver­sity of Sin­ga­pore, Pro­fes­sor Sch­midt (pic­tured far right) spelled out the dan­gers of a sup­pos­edly utopian drive to separate teach­ing from re­search. He said that the Hum­bold­tian tra­di­tion – where ed­u­ca­tion is in­formed by re­search – was com­ing un­der “se­vere” threat.

“Many uni­ver­si­ties are split­ting their ed­u­ca­tion from their re­search, and I sus­pect that uni­ver­sity rank­ings are par­tially driv­ing this be­hav­iour,” he said. “The ba­sic idea is sim­ple. You mas­sify ed­u­ca­tion us­ing non re­search-ac­tive fac­ulty, who are very good teach­ers, [and] cross-sub­sidise re­search-only staff with the prof­its of teach­ing or other in­come.

“In the­ory you get stu­dents who are happy and in­spired by these great teach­ers, and happy re­searchers who don’t have to teach.”

But Pro­fes­sor Sch­midt warned that this ap­proach would sever the teach­ing-re­search nexus and trig­ger a “dan­ger­ous and un­sus­tain­able” cy­cle. “In its first it­er­a­tion stu­dents are be­ing taught by a gen­er­a­tion of teach­ers whose higher ed­u­ca­tion was in­formed by re­search-ac­tive staff,” he said. “How­ever, in the se­cond gen­er­a­tion, the stu­dents are go­ing to be com­pletely de­cou­pled from the re­search of the day.”

He said that the trend would even­tu­ally en­gulf elite uni­ver­si­ties that re­sisted it. “The en­tire uni­ver­sity en­vi­ron­ment is one of cross­fer­til­i­sa­tion and in­tra-de­pen­dency. If a huge sec­tion of the uni­ver­sity ecosys­tem sud­denly drops out, the re­search uni­ver­si­ties – think of them as the apex preda­tors, although

that’s prob­a­bly not the best anal­ogy – will end up be­ing iso­lated from the tal­ent and ideas that cur­rently emerge across the sys­tem.”

Pro­fes­sor Sch­midt said that uni­ver­si­ties needed to “think deeply” about how re­search in­forms the teach­ing of their grad­u­ates, and not take it for granted. He warned fel­low uni­ver­sity lead­ers against be­ing “slaves to the rank­ings” and their evolv­ing method­olo­gies.

“We must have the con­fi­dence to do the best we can at our mis­sions, and hope the rank­ings sen­si­bly re­flect our suc­cesses and fail­ures – not­ing each of our in­sti­tu­tions’ idio­syn­cra­sies,” he said.

Pro­fes­sor Sch­midt added that the higher ed­u­ca­tion com­mu­nity tended to “un­der­play” teach­ing, even though the gov­ern­ment and busi­nesses are far more in­ter­ested in uni­ver­si­ties’ stu­dents than their re­search. Uni­ver­si­ties must not keep their as­sets, re­sources or the fruits of their re­search too close to their chests, he in­sisted.

“While there are rea­sons to pro­tect the uni­ver­sity’s in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty, I take my cue from Stan­ford and the Mass­a­chu­setts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy: it is even more lu­cra­tive to help make peo­ple and cus­tomers do well, so that they re­ally are able to give back,” he said.

He said that Stan­ford, for ex­am­ple, had earned $ 45.4 mil­lion (£34.4 mil­lion) in roy­alty in­come from 808 separate tech­nolo­gies in 2016-17. “A nice chunk of change, but it rather pales in com­par­i­son to the $1.13 bil­lion in phi­lan­thropy they re­ceived that same year.”

Pro­fes­sor Sch­midt said that ANU’s gen­eral ap­proach is to pro­tect the in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty of in­di­vid­ual re­searchers rather than the uni­ver­sity as a whole. “My goal is to make sure any good idea of the uni­ver­sity is as use­ful for so­ci­ety as pos­si­ble. We’re in­vest­ing in com­pa­nies at an early stage and then be­ing pre­pared to sell them off; coin­vest­ing with other in­sti­tu­tions; let­ting en­trepreneurs go for it on their own if that’s ap­pro­pri­ate; or pro­vid­ing a lot of sup­port for those who re­ally don’t know what they’re do­ing. Rather than a one-size-fits- all, we have a team that sits down and tries to ne­go­ti­ate in each case for that par­tic­u­lar per­son. The goal [is] to max­imise the use of the IP out­side, mak­ing sure we pro­tect the in­di­vid­u­als if that’s what they want.”

Pro­fes­sor Sch­midt won the 2011 No­bel Prize in Physics for show­ing that the ex­pan­sion of the uni­verse was ac­cel­er­at­ing. He said that the re­search that had led to the award now “wouldn’t be funded by a politi­cian in most coun­tries”, even though it had re­quired grants to­talling just $8,000 at the time.

He said that uni­ver­si­ties had to ar­gue the need for a “stock of knowl­edge” with no ob­vi­ous prac­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tions. Con­ver­sa­tions about how to trans­late that knowl­edge should come later, he said.

“[But] we can’t just say our job is only the stock of knowl­edge [like] we have done in the past. We have to aim for an en­light­ened un­der­stand­ing of why that stock of knowl­edge is im­por­tant.”

All to­gether now uni­ver­si­ties could end up hit­ting the wrong note if they be­come ‘slaves to the rank­ings’, a vice-chan­cel­lor claims

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