From the Vice-Chancellor
Back in the December Adelaidean, I commented, almost in passing, that 2005 seemed likely to be an "interesting" year. With 2005 a third over, "interesting" is hardly the word. The Federal Government, having won another term and having gained control of the Senate, has been spurred into producing a snowstorm of documents proposing further changes to universities. These cover everything from the protocols associated with granting university status through to the governance of universities, voluntary membership of student bodies, mechanisms for funding research, and quality assurance of programs offered in other countries.
Many of these issues have serious implications for this and every university. For example, if membership of the student union is made voluntary, this puts at direct risk a range of student services, which it is in the interests of the university and all students to maintain. At the University of Adelaide, the Student Service Fee supports not only social and cultural events, but a range of vital services. Some will be lost, and others will have to be supported by funds that would otherwise be used for teaching.
The Government's agenda for reform of research funding contains a range of unknown challenges in determining how universities should be funded for the research they undertake. Tied up with this is the proposal that there should be "teaching only" universities. I see no particular problem, from our point of view, with that suggestion. Research is one of our core activities, and regardless of any Government decisions about the requirement to undertake research, the University of Adelaide will remain a research-intensive institution. However, the introduction of the so-called Research Quality Framework as a means of determining a funding base for research is another matter. I have been involved with the equivalent exercise in the UK, and with the development of proposals in New Zealand, where I chaired the Ministry of Education's Research Reference Group. The challenge with these exercises is two-fold. On the one hand, how to find a set of criteria which cover disciplines ranging from the Fine Arts through to Theoretical Physics and Agriculture, while on the other ensuring that the cost of the exercise is not so high as to waste a significant proportion of the funds earmarked for research.
Serious as all these issues may be, there are even more fundamental questions hidden away in some of the documents. For example, in the document on the enabling legislation for universities - should it be State or Federal legislation? - there is a section discussing "ownership" of universities. The implication appears to be that the Government in some way owns the universities. This is an appalling concept. Universities are owned by the members of the university, which includes all of its graduates, its staff and its students. Universities may be founded (and funded) to serve the community, and in that sense they are community bodies: but they are definitely not owned by the Government!
Universities exist for the purpose of communicating knowledge, for the purpose of creating new knowledge and serving the community. They are not an arm of whatever Government happens to be in power, and they could not and should not be asked to peddle a preferred view of the world. Certainly the Government, like anyone else, can contract with us (and indeed they do) for the provision of education, qualifications, training, research and other services, but the independence of universities is a vital cornerstone of a free society.
It is time that this debate was held in public, and a serious attempt made to resolve these issues to ensure that universities are able to serve future generations.
JAMES A. McWHA