Education Minister Christopher Pyne has flagged a new move in his campaign to “set universities free“, telling the Australian Financial Review today that universities could be given the choice to scrap research and become teaching-only institutions.

So how would that work, and is it a good idea to strip research functions from these hallowed halls of learning?

What laws would need to change

Under current legislation, universities must take part in research to receive Commonwealth funding, but Pyne may not have the final say on whether his suggested change would be implemented. Even if the minister did change the requirement at a federal level, all universities but one are mandated by state laws to undertake research. This means that if a university wanted to become a “teaching only” university, state governments would have to get involved. The only university that has research mandated by the Commonwealth is the Australian National University in Canberra.

As it stands Pyne’s push is not a policy, rather another idea floated by the minister that fits with the deregulation agenda.

The adjustment may be possible without significantly changing federal legislation, according to Andrew Norton, higher education expert at the Grattan Institute (and former Liberal staffer). He says the requirement to undertake research could be ended by changing the way “university” is defined in delegated legislation (legislation that is delegated to regulatory bodies by Parliament). However, that could be disallowed by the Senate.

Do universities want this change?

Smaller and regional universities could be most affected. But Crikey contacted Vice-Chancellors this morning and found the proposal doesn’t seem too popular.

Professor Sandra Harding, Vice-Chancellor of James Cook University (also Chair of Universities Australia):

“Change is not necessarily a bad thing at all. At the moment university is a controlled term so you must do research. Some universities are very comprehensive and some are more focused so it would be signalling quite a shift.

James Cook was established as part of the University of Queensland and has always been a research and teaching university. We’re the leading university in tropical research. Research lies at the heart of what we do.”

Professor Tim Brailsford, Vice-Chancellor of Bond University (which is private):

“Bond University has no plans to alter its current research strategy which has three pillars of developing niche centres of international excellence, growing internal capacity and expanding PhD enrolments. We believe that Bond’s mission involves the production of new knowledge in addition to its dissemination. We have no comment to make on the appropriate missions for other universities.”

Professor David Battersby, Vice-Chancellor of Federation University in Ballarat:

“It would be not an option we would want to exercise. We have to be really careful about these ideas — they’re very metro-centric. We’re governed by an act of the Victorian Parliament that mandates what the university’s purposes are as a regional university covering a wide footprint and we are mandated to be involved in research.

It’s in the national interest to have regional universities involved in research. To suggest that we should rethink our focus and vision and mission belies the point of our mission, to somehow think that we might consider not doing research is certainly not an option.”

Professor Peter Lee, Vice-Chancellor of Southern Cross University (and Chair of the Regional Universities Network, or RUN):

“We are strategically engaged with research. Without this activity many benefits would be lost to regional Australia. RUN universities are strategically growing their research effort. Results from Excellence in Research for Australia show that we undertake research of well above, above and at world standard in a range of fields of strategic importance to the regions including geochemistry, forestry, crop and pasture production, agriculture and land management, zoology, biological sciences, mathematics, law, policy and administration, health and clinical sciences and human movement.

Our universities are relatively young and the research effort is increasing significantly. Funding invested in research will be highly productive, focussed and yield a high return.”

Professor Greg Craven, Vice-Chancellor of Australian Catholic University (speaking on RN Breakfast):

“One of the things about Australian universities actually makes them different than other universities they are all under a requirement to research, now that imposes costs and problems but has one great advantage.

It means that every Australian student who goes to university is going to be taught not only by the person who reads the book before they teach, but to some extent in some places, they are going to be taught by the person who wrote the book.”

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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