Southern Charm

More choice, more collaboration and more outward focus: Dr Stephen Kinsella reports back from University of Melbourne on the changing nature of higher education.

A paradox is a self-contradiction, and universities embody a kind of social paradox: They are part of a global system of research and teaching, but they are also intensely local institutions.

University of Limerick shares the same fundamental set of goals as University of Melbourne in Australia, where I’m a visiting research fellow. The goals of both centre around excellent research, high quality teaching, and engagement with groups who matter to the University: a set of people and institutions across the world and at home they want to work with and influence. Melbourne benchmarks itself against the best in the world. You could say exactly the same thing about UL, except we call what we do ‘broadening horizons’.

At the highest level of description, every university’s goals are essentially the same. And yet, every university has its own way of translating those goals into concrete actions. That’s where the local comes in. The local encodes history, and space. It encodes politics and policies and culture. You can’t understand a university without getting a sense of its ‘local’.

I expected to meet a different ‘local’ when coming to Melbourne with my wife and three children. In fact, that’s largely why we came. Melbourne has been voted the world’s most liveable city for seven years in a row. The coffee here is so good that Melbourne-trained baristas are in demand across the world. I love the approach Australians take to the public realm. Everyone uses the many parks, playgrounds, climbing sets and barbeques at the end of the working day. It’s where you meet your neighbours, my kids play with their kids, and you can see the benefits of a well-run state everywhere, from the greenways we cycle on to the museums (one with the world’s largest IMAX screen) we visit.

My children’s school is a local public one, and they are flourishing there. Half of their subjects are taught entirely through Spanish and they cycle to school every day. I’d recommend a sabbatical period to anyone just for the life experience alone.

But we’re not here on holiday. I’m here to work on my research, and in particular, on a book project with some of the world’s great political economists. The book is called The Strength of the Weak: How Small States can flourish in the 21st Century. The idea for the book comes from my experience
of studying the impact of austerity on tiny economies like Ireland, Greece and Portugal, but makes a global point: Sri Lanka and Tuvalu have lessons Ireland can learn. Denmark has much to teach the world and so does Indonesia. Small states are defined in terms of what they aren’t – they don’t have natural resources, perhaps, or an independent monetary policy. Since the 1960s, social scientists have tried to think about the evolution of small states in the wrong way, in my opinion.

I know I’m in the right place to write this book. University of Melbourne is ranked number one in Australia, number 32 in the world, and is ranked number 23 in the world for social sciences. The University has 48,000 students, 40 per cent of whom are not Australian, 4,000 faculty members, and is a €2.5 billion exporter of services, part of a €21 billion higher education export sector.

The higher education system in Australia runs on the kind of income-contingent student loans the Cassells report recommended for Ireland’s higher education system for domestic students. Essentially, higher education is free at the point of entry, and you pay back a loan for your education only when you reach a certain income threshold. The system is set up to attract students from around the world. Each department has a ‘business development manager’ to connect researchers to possible funders and executive education opportunities. All of this means the higher education system is very well resourced. Your job is to focus on excellent research.

Contrast the Australian story as I’ve told it with the experience of Irish universities. My colleagues Darragh Flannery and John Cullinan studied the Irish experience and found that while higher education student numbers have risen by more than 20 per cent, the spend per student has fallen for a decade, as has the State contribution.

It’s clear as the uncertainty around Irish public funding sources remains, universities will move to generate more non-exchequer income. These sources include increasing numbers of international students, more research income and more corporate partnerships. The process is already underway. Larger Irish universities already get around 60 per cent of their income from non-exchequer sources. This change in funding is going to change the shape of the Irish university system, forcing it to become more global. UL is already a leader in Ireland with 2,581 international students through its doors in 2015/16.

Hard work, work hard?

Day to day, things are very different here at Melbourne. For example, I’m teaching a course about the political and economic effects of austerity to students on the Masters in Public Administration and teaching is delivered intensively. The entire course will be delivered over five days, with 41 hours of mandated contact time over that period: Even lunches are working lunches. There’s a pre-assessment to make sure the reading is done before we meet, and a post-assessment. Everything the students need for the module in February 2018 is ready in December 2017 to begin their preparation online. Intensive teaching allows both more teaching-time and contact hours, and more concentrated researching.

This teaching set up is part of what they call the Melbourne Model. The essence of this is that you start with a general three-year undergraduate degree and then you can choose to major in one area, or take ‘breadth’ modules from across the university, and then partly specialise. You might do a BA in Journalism, but take courses in programming, Mandarin Chinese, and anthropology. You then specialise at the graduate degree level. The emphasis is on choice and breadth, but with the option to study any subject throughout your undergraduate experience.

The Melbourne model emphasises choice and self-direction, and the funding set-up of the university supports that model. The trend globally is for universities to move towards more choice for students, more research intensity for faculty, and more links abroad. UL is moving in this direction, and has been for some time. The paradox of the global and the local hasn’t gone away, but how we in UL respond to it will change.

Stephen Kinsella is Senior Lecturer in Economics at the Kemmy Business School, UL, and until 2018, a Research Fellow at the School of Government at University of Melbourne, Australia .

5 things we enjoy about Melbourne

  1. The Botanic Gardens. There’s always something going on, most events are free and the children love it there. Shakespeare in the Park has been a real treat.
  2. Open air swimming pools. These are community-run. We have an Olympic-sized one 10 minutes away from us.
  3. Sovereign Hill, Ballarat. Think Bunratty Castle, but with 18th Century gold prospectors. My kids loved it so much we went twice.
  4. Dialogue in the Dark. You walk in total darkness around reproductions of Melbourne with a guide who is visually impaired. This was one of the most enriching hours of my life.
  5. The Queen Victoria Night Market. Dozens of stalls selling everything from amazing food and hand-made clothing to computer leads and fossils, with free things for the children to do like painting and dance classes.