A great university is first made by its students

Where research and teaching meet

Brian Schmidt

PHOTO: ANU Media

Education | Australia, Asia, The World

7 November 2019

Universities, uniquely, are where research and teaching meet. We need to bring together teachers, researchers, learners, and leaders in a creative environment of knowledge generation and exchange, Brian Schmidt writes. 

Of the many things I worry about as a university leader, the threat to the hallowed Humboldtian university model, where teaching and research are inexorably mixed, is high on the list. Students and their experiences are increasingly overlooked as a hallmark of a strong university, while great research takes centre stage.

With the flurry of university rankings that pepper the higher education landscape, this impression is reinforced. Student considerations seem to be at best secondary in most of the rankings, and as rankings form a larger part of how our institutions are perceived, we risk driving perverse outcomes in universities’ behaviour.

Rankings methodologies are published and most universities will devote at least some effort to understanding how they stack up against the various metrics. My concern is that, in order to move up the rankings, some universities are overtly manipulating their reportable workforce, converting, en masse, academics into teaching-only roles that break the link between higher education and research. This has potential existential consequences for our sector.

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Universities defend the segregation of their teaching and research workforces under the seemingly reasonable explanation of comparative advantage: let the best teachers focus on teaching, and let the best researchers focus on research.

But in many cases, staff are tapped on the shoulder to take on large teaching loads not based on their teaching ability, but rather their perceived under-performance within research.

And there are consequences. Many of the next generation of students will be taught entirely by people who are not creating new knowledge through research. And as that generation ages and becomes the teachers of its successors, university teaching will become disconnected from the leading-edge of knowledge.

Future students will ask, if I am not being taught by a research-active teacher, why exactly should I get my education at a university at all? Into this gap that universities have willingly created, yet-to-emerge, high-quality commercial education providers will race – offering a learning experience as good as ours but without many of the cost and social structures we bear as universities.  It is then that universities will discover just how dependent they are on being a nexus of teaching and research.

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This is not an argument for homogeneity among institutions. The world needs a diverse set of higher education institutions to meet the needs of a growing population that requires high-quality education delivered as efficiently and accessibly as possible.

Society needs growth in the amount of quality research underway, both fundamental and applied, and we need leaders who know how to interact with emerging knowledge.

Universities, uniquely, are where research and teaching meet. We need not be the only places that do either, but we are the only places to do both:  bringing together teachers, researchers, learners, and leaders in a creative environment of knowledge generation and exchange.

One trait shared by the great universities of the world (however you wish to define them) is that they all have undergraduate programs that are in the highest demand. These universities do not treat their students like commodities. Instead, they devote significant resources per student and bring together a group of highly capable people who can learn from each other.

A high proportion of future leaders graduate from these institutions, their talent nurtured and shaped by their university and their classmates. Focusing on students is not altruism, it is the foundation of a university’s reputation.

At The Australian National University (ANU), creating a distinctively excellent student experience is a high priority. I have changed heads in our sector by announcing that we will limit our student cohort to around 9500 undergraduates, and an equal sized postgraduate cohort.

By my reckoning, this is the best balance for our institution: our students will get the best possible education from the best possible researchers. We have critical mass across a breadth of studies, our students get to know their teachers – and these teachers have access to the resources and time that enable them to be at the global forefront of research.  It means our students don’t get lost in a crowd, and they are part of a human-scale cohort that allows them to get to know a diverse community of classmates.

But we are making a financial sacrifice – by far the easiest way to grow revenue in the Australian context is through student enrolments. But, my calculus is that growing our income through more students will only make ANU a lesser, rather than a greater, institution.  The price for more money from students would be larger classes, less research-led education, and a loss of the sense for our students that they are part of a humane and human-scaled community.

If this sounds like ANU is heading back to a bygone age, the truth is the opposite: we are trying to redefine the modern research university. The ANU professoriate are coming to terms with the dictum that you don’t have to teach a lot of classes here, but when you do teach, you will teach well.

This means taking on the findings of research from my fellow Physics Nobel Laureate, Carl Wieman, and many others, that traditional lectures are poor tools for creating great learning outcomes, and students learn best when they learn actively.

At ANU, we have created new teaching spaces that facilitate modern pedagogies. Many in our professoriate have grabbed the opportunity with both hands, creating exciting new ways to teach. It is, as with all change, still a work in progress to bring the whole professoriate into this new world.

We are fortunate that ANU already attracts some of the world’s best students – our responsibility is to create an experience that is as enriching as possible, going well beyond our course offerings.  Our ambition is that every student will have the opportunity to live on campus as part of an intellectually rich environment that extends their thinking beyond their own discipline.

Another of our responsibilities in preparing our students for life and leadership is to avoid our campus becoming a homogenous bubble. As a national university with a global mission, we have a responsibility to ensure our community reflects the whole of society, so we have changed the way we recruit and admit and students both in Australia and overseas.

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Starting this year, we are reaching out to the best students in every school in Australia offering them a place to study at their nation’s university. We are focusing our philanthropic efforts on creating scholarships that make it easier for talented people from every background and from around the world to join us, and making sure each student has the opportunity to join a residential community on our campus.

What does this focus on students mean for our researchers?

It means they get to work on a campus alive with enthusiastic, engaged minds occupying a collegiate space, where research is conducted, considered, explained, and dissected. Our students, among the most capable in the world, are our assets and our critics, asking searching questions on campus while advocating for our university around the world.

Our transition is in progress. It is taking time, and we are searching for the world’s best practice to help us get it right. But at the heart of the ANU vision is the idea that every student will receive a great education from great researchers in a great environment. It is a vision that makes us uncountably richer, and one that simply cannot be delivered by massification.

Professor Brian Schmidt AC is Vice-Chancellor and President of The Australian National University.  

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One Response

  1. Dale L BAILEY says:

    But what if a great researcher is not a great teacher? I had a few of those as an undergraduate.

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