It is almost universally acknowledged that universities are vital institutions and that higher education and research can change lives for the better, but in some ways universities can be the victim of their own success. Governments are quick to acknowledge the importance of universities to a transforming economy that is part of a volatile and globalised world, but they struggle to fully underwrite the scale of growth that is needed.
Australian higher education policy remains in a holding pattern, this being the fourth year where the Federal Government’s plans to rebalance the support of higher education away from public to private funding have been blocked in the Senate. Research funding, which was largely left unaddressed in this year’s Budget, has also been getting steadily tighter, although there are prospects for more money for medical research.
We should not assume that any change of government would provide budget salvation. The financial pressures on all governments are relentless and the lesson from experience over the last ten years is that the funding even of important and worthwhile reforms, such as the demand-driven system, is difficult to sustain in the long term.
But while we should expect better than policy paralysis from our governments and political leaders, Australian universities have still been able to thrive and to drive their own change, none more so than QUT.
At the start of this century QUT had been a university for only eleven years, and while it was developing strongly it was still a fledgling in research terms, ranking 18th among Australia’s then 37 universities for research income. When the first global ranking of universities was produced by Shanghai Jiao Tong University in 2003, QUT did not appear. Now QUT occupies ninth place in Australia for research income and is in the top 300 in what is now the Academic Ranking of World Universities. However, these abstract statistics are much less meaningful than the real world impacts that we have seen emerge as QUT has grown as a university. To our longer standing research strengths in fields such as creative industries, education, plant biotechnology and allied health we have added exciting new strands such as materials science, robotics, big data and biomedical engineering, and across the full range of our work we have inspirational people dedicated to using advanced knowledge and technology to make the world a better place.
This growth in research has by no means come at the expense of our commitment to educating students. We have transformed the physical environments on our Kelvin Grove and Gardens Point campuses so that they are among the best campuses in the world and exciting and stimulating places to learn. Major changes have been made to improve student support, with the launch this year of the HiQ initiative being a good example, and we are working on comprehensive integration of online and face-to-face aspects of the QUT education experience. There is much more to do to prepare students for the challenges of technological and workplace disruption, but the reforms we have made have already made a positive difference to students, and we are seeing the results in survey data, including a strong showing in publications such as the Good Universities Guide.
This will be my last column for Links; it has been a great privilege to be part of QUT’s journey, to work with so many wonderful colleagues at all levels across both academic and professional groupings, and to lead such an institution in partnership with members of the senior leadership team and QUT Council. Partnership is indeed a fundamental feature of this university, with its multitude of productive internal and external linkages that tie together the strands of the QUT community. Above all it has been gratifying to see many thousands of students benefit from a QUT education and to maintain communication with the global network of QUT alumni. We all should be enormously proud of the achievements of the QUT community over the years and I believe that QUT has limitless potential to develop as one of the finest universities linking academic knowledge with real world challenges.
I close this column by offering a special tribute to our Chancellor, Mr Tim Fairfax AC, for his leadership and personal support. In addition, I extend warmest wishes to my successor, Professor Margaret Sheil AO.
Professor Peter Coaldrake AO