Rumour has it that a Federal Education Minister once claimed the country had just one university with around 220 campuses. More recently prominent vice chancellors have commented that all institutions are variations on a single theme—the comprehensive research university. But is our higher education system indeed so flat? Or do Australia’s institutions—universities as well as non- university providers—attempt to occupy differentiated positions in an increasingly complex landscape? Are salient differences of a strategic, marketing or intellectual nature? And, importantly, does it matter?
This LH Martin Institute and ACER research briefing is intended to shift discussion of diversity in Australia’s higher education sector to a more considered level. We don’t promise neat solutions, but our analysis moves beyond extant sectoral partitionings to expose emerging dynamics and prospects for institutions, and hence for the system as a whole. We do this by using classification structures for institutional characteristics and performance that are being rolled out globally— namely U-Map (van Vught, 2009) and U-Multirank (van Vught & Ziegele, 2012).
Our research builds on a discussion of diversity in the Australian higher education sector that has a fairly long history (for instance, see Meek, 1991; Meek & O’Neill, 1996) but remains inconclusive. The topic has featured prominently in several national reviews (e.g. West, 1998; Nelson, 2002; Bradley, Noonan, Nugent & Scales, 2008). A cogent recent analysis of policy implications is given by Coaldrake and Stedman (2013) in their latest book. In late 2012 the Hon John Dawkins (former Federal Education Minister) commented that the Unified National System—established under his leadership—was never intended to be a ‘uniform’ national system (Trounson, 2012). This has always been the government’s policy position but, as is well known, many of the policy drivers that have been put in place since the birth of the UNS have stimulated universities to pursue similar goals and activities.
Caught in what would seem to be a semi-elastic web of conformity, the diversity debate so far has not been able to escape the ‘glass half full—glass half empty’ situation which reads, by-and-large, either that ‘all Australian universities are comprehensive research universities’ or that ‘...but clearly my university is different from yours’. There are two fundamental problems in this version of the debate. The first is that we are still struggling to come to terms with what diversity means for institutional positioning. The second is that because of this an authoritative set of indicators to underpin the discussion is absent. Our approach, built on the U-Map and U-Multirank transparency tools, offers a way out of this dilemma and provides new insights in the diverse Australian higher education landscape. But before delving into the details, let’s examine why diversity actually matters.
There is a good deal of consensus in the research literature that diversity in higher education is a good thing. Simply put, more diverse systems perform better than less diverse systems. Drawing from earlier conceptual and empirical work by Birnbaum (1983) and van Vught (2008) provides a succinct summary of the evidence. We review the major points. ￼
First, more diverse systems better meet the diverse needs of students. When systems expand and evolve from elite to mass to universal systems (Trow, 1979) as is happening across the globe, the student body itself by definition becomes more diverse. A diverse set of institutions allows students to choose the one that best reflects their preferences and abilities, thereby optimising the chances of successfully completing a higher education degree.
Second, following from the above argument, a diverse system stimulates social mobility. There is no denying that for the large part the classic small higher education systems catered for the elite. Such systems were the perfect vehicle for keeping that elite ‘an elite’ by educating and socialising them in exclusive institutions. More diverse higher education systems allow for different access points and progression pathways and hence will allow for increased participation from the lower socio-economic strata and other equity groups. A third argument relates to better meeting labour market needs. Labour markets increasingly fragment and differentiate, thus requiring different types of graduates. A more diverse higher education system is better able to respond to these needs.
Other benefits associated with diverse higher education systems relate to the potential for experimentation which, according to Jencks and Riesman’s (1968) analysis, will continuously lift the performance of higher education systems. Institutions try to differentiate in order to occupy niche markets. Once such niches prove viable, others will try to emulate, which in turn will lead to attempts to further differentiate, and so on. Australia’s geography, and the low mobility of our students (Edwards & van der Brugge, 2013), dampens such dynamic.
The focus of our analysis
Clearly, when taken seriously, institutional diversity grows quickly into a very complex discussion. In this contribution we seek to balance parsimony with due consideration to the inherent nuances of the matter. The next section touches briefly on key contexts, and on the value and methods of the profiles we have produced. At the heart of this briefing lies a presentation of the multidimensional profiles. The briefing closes by considering extensions to the indicator mix, to the population of institutions and level of analysis, and next steps that can be taken to further enhance transparency of the Australian university and, ultimately, tertiary education sector.