4.1 Separating Teaching and Research Funds and Functions

I’ve already recounted my story of being introduced as someone who “breaks university rules but brings in lots of money so we don’t mind”. A small component of these funds came from external research grants, but the larger component was from externally funded education. Since those days, university funding here in Australia, and similarly in the UK and other countries, has been underpinned by fees from overseas students. We have discussed this before, but the issue has come into sharp focus at the time of the Covid-19 pandemic which has put a massive hole in university budgets, and affects research programmes. In Australia a considerable portion of research in universities is funded by the overseas student fees, either through the higher degree students who perform the research and bring their own funds, or through the revenue from the fee income which can support academic staff, laboratory and other costs.

This highlights the issue of the need to separate research and educational roles of the university. The core business of the ‘higher education’ system is…education. But if the funds from education are used to prop up research, what does that say about research as a national priority? There are anecdotal reports of university students getting very limited numbers of contact hours with any academic staff, and of students graduating without having been taught by a lecturer who is not either a higher degree student themselves or a contract teacher. The academic staff are drawn to research rather than teaching, as research grant success and research publications are the pathway to rewards in the university sector such as status within the organisation and promotion, although there are attempts to recognise teaching excellence. The various research excellence criteria used in some countries to guide university funding includes only research, not teaching, and most of the global university ranking systems are heavily research weighted. It is said that a high global ranking is required to attract overseas students (and their fees)—so we have a perfect circle of teaching funds being used to support research which attracts students who don’t get teaching as a result of the funds they bring which are used to support research….

Not only is this not logical, it does not make business sense. I’ve criticised universities for adopting the businesses model, but what successful business would have a reward system that rewards non-core activities (research) more than its core business (education)?

While I have no problem with, and in fact would strongly encourage, research by university academics, I do not think that this should be at the expense of teaching. Research into teaching itself is essential so that the educational methods are evidence based. Similarly, all professional activities and public policies need research to ensure that they are evidence based. It is also important to fund ‘blue skies’ research. If research is a national priority, it should be properly funded, either within universities or in research institutes, and not as a spin off from teaching earnings. To use funds from overseas students, who will usually come from countries with a lower national income than the country where they go for their education, is particularly inappropriate, even unethical.

So my first answer to ‘can we afford it’ is—fund research appropriately and rather than siphoning off the funds earned from teaching into supporting research, use these funds for teaching.

4.2 Making Trust the Major Mechanism for Ensuring Quality

I’ve previously made the case for reducing the administrative structure and replacing it with a trust based model. Many universities, in accordance with their perceived notion that they are businesses, reward their senior administrators as though they were senior business executives with inflated salaries. In Australia, the administrative head of the university, the Vice-Chancellor, often earns more than a million dollars a year. The salary of the most senior academic is less than one fifth of this. Other senior administrative staff also have high salaries, so reducing the numbers of administrative staff will save a great deal of money. As will creating a more realistic salary structure.

And of course there are many other benefits of replacing managerialism with trust.

4.3 Changing the Educational Process

The consequences of a more sustainable process implies fewer buildings and more online education, and this will reduce costs. Fewer buildings and less travel are obviously going to save costs. There are some special cases of universities with multiple campuses where heavy travel costs are incurred just moving staff between the campuses (usually professional staff and not academics). The divided opinion about the relative costs of online and face-to-face education is a false debate. Of course it takes more time and resources to develop a good online programme than to write some lecture notes, and if the lecture is given to 500 students and repeated regularly it will be pretty cheap. But if you want good quality education, the large lecture is not the way to go. We have discussed before that there is no reduction in educational outcome from the online format, even when the comparison is with good quality face-to-face education. Online education can be scaled up to large numbers, and as experience grows and infrastructure costs are spread over time, relative costs will reduce.

Getting serious about the use of Open Educational Resources and Practices will also reduce costs, along with the reduction in needless competition between universities.

In my notion of the Distributed University I have included links to local and national industries to make sure that education is relevant to needs. This will also have the consequence of deeper involvement through experiential opportunities and practice based learning, and these can be used to leverage funds as well as engaging the business partners as teachers—again with the implication of a reduction in university staff costs.

Beyond teachers identified as local industry partners, there are other ways of engaging volunteers in the educational process, as discussed in a previous chapter. This is a largely neglected opportunity to broaden the teaching staff, at low cost to the university.

I have not discussed how moving to a distributed model might be managed as this is beyond my expertise. However, change might be achieved through optimisation or by a transformation, depending on the level of ambition, the amount of disruption and the time over which this can be taken (KPMG 2020). There is considerable diversity in higher education, between countries who have different systems, between private and public, between arts and sciences and education for professions, and between undergraduate and postgraduate, teaching and research. The extent and pace of change in direction I have suggested will have to vary according to local realities, but should not be an excuse to avoid change.

In the final chapter, I present details of one of the global educational programmes with which I have been involved. This is to demonstrate a number of the issues I have discussed in other parts of this book, and has informed my thinking about university education.