Don't believe the research about us, say elite unis

17 Jul 2015

The Australian Financial Review, 17 July 2015

By Vicki Thomson

The Group of Eight (Go8) universities are proud to be recognised globally as Australia's eight leading research universities. We position ourselves as elite but not elitist, as educating tomorrow's leaders not just training tomorrow's workers.

Our students and their parents know that with equal pride and determination, we seek out quality students and that we ensure they become far more than just quality graduates. We ensure they receive a unique higher education steeped in the values of research – research which affects the lives of every Australian every day, research that builds Australia's economy; in fact two-thirds of all of Australia's university research funding.

So yes, when the latest HILDA survey (the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey from the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research at the University of Melbourne)  was released last week with results that questioned the value (in terms of income) of what the Go8 delivers for the some 90,000 graduates we produce each year, of course we questioned its validity. Its results were misleading and even the prestigious Grattan Institute was at pains to point this out. And they don't come more independent of view than the Grattan Institute.

It would be too easy to become entrenched in claim and counter-claim around the research outcomes, however some of that does have to occur, because in a sector that lives and dies by the robustness of its research we cannot allow it to slip past when there are so many questions which need to be asked.

We do not apologise for asking those questions. We do not apologise for challenging findings that risk unwarranted damage to our reputation. Peer review is fundamental to the quality assurance process of research, and we do not apologise for engaging that process.

However, there is a bigger issue at play here, which is the value proposition of a higher education at a Go8 university, and the fact that what constitutes a higher education is changing for so many Go8 students.

Incomplete input

So let's dispense with what happened with HILDA. Firstly it used incomplete inputs – and if what goes in is wrong or incomplete, then what comes out can't be entirely correct. The analysis ignored the field of education for example. This is a somewhat basic omission as this had previously been demonstrated to be a major contributing factor to graduate earnings. The fact the research delivered results so different from everything that had gone before should have raised some flashing lights. Apparently not.

It would be an incredibly unfortunate outcome of this misleading research if a percentage of this year's Australian matriculation students were to become collateral damage. We can't let that happen. We have to get across to them that studying hard for the highest ATAR result possible is important to their future choices. They can't now slack off because of HILDA and think a lower result will necessarily earn them the same or more.

A higher ATAR will more likely ensure them entrance to a Go8 University. As stated earlier, we target quality students. We are not ashamed of this. We say with pride that those who can should aim to achieve that and study at one of our universities. After all, we are where more than 62 per cent of Australia's doctors, vets and dentists are educated. We are where more than 40 per cent of Australia's engineering and science graduates are educated. Importantly, we are also where effort and funding is directed to some of the lower-paid disciplines such as the arts and humanities. This might not bring huge economic returns but it does feed the rich cultural and social experiences of a nation.

The world needs those disciplines. How often do we hear it said they are food for the soul?

In the end, no, they may not pay as much as an accountant or physiotherapist in their first years post-graduation but they are studied with no less commitment and their graduates contribute richly to the world we live in.

We must have a well-rounded world where the philosophers are as valued as the physicists, and physicists valued as much as the business manager. It is what Go8 universities ensure continues; that all disciplines we can offer are offered. Of course when wrongly factored, as inexplicably happened with HILDA, the result is that our overall earnings "score" is depleted.

It doesn't bear thinking about that universities should be devalued by the misleading use of data for educating invaluable disciplines which just don't all happen to deliver massive salaries for graduates. That is indeed a world gone mad.

It also needs to be factored in that a higher education today frequently has a much longer time frame for many of our students, particularly at the Go8. The University of Melbourne's professional masters pathway model, for example, encourages students to study longer than at other universities, and additionally, bachelor graduates at Go8 universities are more likely to continue their study to research degree level.

This reduces earnings capacity in the career of their choice until they are often in their late twenties.

This again shows that if research is to be undertaken about when and what a graduate earns then that research must keep pace with the changing face of what is a higher education and when it is completed.

Vicki Thomson is chief executive of the Group of Eight universities which comprise the University of Queensland, the University of Sydney, UNSW, the Australian National University, the University of Melbourne, Monash University, the University of Adelaide and the University of Western Australia.

Source: The Australian Financial Review,  http://www.afr.com/leadership/careers/career-advan...