Australia: World Class Universities or a World Class University System? by Ellen Hazelkorn


A reflection on the Australian University system by  Ellen Hazelkorn who undertook interviews in early 2008 for the IMHE project on the Impact of Rankings on Higher Education with HE leaders, their students and staff, and with policymakers, business organisations and trade unions in Australia.


Education in Australia is an AUD 12.5 billion export industry, with half of it in higher education, making it the third largest Australian export after coal and iron ore – a point of much celebration and much consternation among higher education leaders and observers(1). Higher education has a major impact on the economy, and therefore deserves better funding (2).

Dependence on International students?

Australia is dependent on international students at a time when student-exporting countries, such as Singapore, China and Malaysia, are rapidly expanding their own higher education systems. Reliance on quantity over quality may lead to a fundamental crisis for Australian higher education – a situation of which both institutions and government are keenly aware.

According to Simon Marginson, Australia lacks ‘truly stellar research universities, now seen as vital attractors of human, intellectual and financial capital in a knowledge economy.'(3) International students and postgraduate students use rankings to help choose both countries and institutions. Australia has the highest proportion of international students in higher education (17.3%) which exceeds the OECD average of 6.7%.

However, international students comprise only 17.8% of students in advanced research programmes which lags behind comparative and competitive universities elsewhere which have up to 50% of international students. This difference is now critical, because PhD students are seen as an important talent metric vital for economic development and innovation.

On a simple country comparison, only two Australian universities are included in the top 100 on the Shanghai Jiao Tong ARWU or 8 in the Times QS Ranking of World Universities.  If the data were recalibrated for population or GDP, Australia is fourth on both measures sharing this top four ranking with Hong Kong, Singapore, Switzerland and New Zealand(4).

How should Australia respond?

Julie Gillard, MP, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education, Employment, Workplace Relations and Social Inclusion, opened the recent AFR HE conference with a speech praised as being the ‘most positive in 12 years’ – but what is being promised? Announcing a ‘major review of Australian higher education…[to help] shape the next steps in the Education Revolution for our universities’, Ms Gillard stressed the link between investing in human capital as the key to global competitiveness(5).

Target actions of the review

The range of target actions include not just higher education, but also pre-school and vocational training, a national curriculum, revision of higher education contribution scheme (HECS) to encourage more mathematics and science graduates, and scholarships to address shortages in key occupations.
The emphasis is on the ‘creation of a diverse set of high performing, globally-focused institutions, each with its own clear, distinctive mission’(6). No new/additional funding is likely to be available until 2010 at the earliest.  At the same time the National Innovation System will be reviewed(7). The split between the two initiatives follows the disaggregation of education and research in the new government’s portfolio mix.

Observers are divided: for some, the Higher education review is likely to reaffirm the principles of educational equity, while others see the innovation review being used to build-up critical mass in designated fields in select universities.

Hubs and spokes

There is some talk of ‘hubs and spokes’, but it’s not clear how this concept of feeder institutions will work given Australia’s geographic challenges.
Concentrating ‘excellence’ in a small number of top ranked universities, e.g. Australia National University and the University of Melbourne (the only two higher education institutions listed among the top 100 in either global ranking), could see the development of world class universities in the south-east corner of the country to the possible detriment of a world class system(8 & 9).
Because the stakes are high – whichever position is adopted – this argument is likely to run and run, and to be repeated around the world(10).

Related articles:

  1. The Economic Impact of Colleges and Universities, John J. Siegfried, Allen R. Sanderson, and Peter McHenry, from Change March/April 2008
  2. Paper on ‘Rankings and Internationalisation’ Sustainability and risks of internationalisation, by (Professor) Simon Marginson presented at the The Australian Financial Review Higher Education conference 13-14 March, 2008: Amora Hotel Jamison, Sydney
  3. A Higher Education Revolution: Creating a Productive, Prosperous, Modern Australia, Speech Australian Financial Review Higher Education Conference, Official website of the Australian Labour Party
  4. Higher education: it’s time…. [to change the policy framework], Address by Professor Ian Chubb AC
    Vice-Chancellor and President, The Australian National University.
  5. A Top 10 University System for Australia, Address by Professor Margaret Gardner, RMIT University
  6. Can our schools become world-class? by Alex Usher,  Globe and Mail Update, October 30, 2006


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