UK Universities and Australian Universities Compared

UK Universities and Australian Universities Compared main image

The Guardian’s Higher Education Network has spent the past fortnight comparing universities in the UK and Australia. The series highlights the many similarities between the two countries’ higher education systems while also exploring some of the contrasts and controversies and areas of collaboration and competition. Take a look at the series summary below to find out how UK universities and Australian universities match up in some of the most pressing issues for today’s higher education providers.

Which country’s universities are more innovative?

Pointing out that the UK and Australian higher education systems owe many of their similarities to their governments’ tendency to mimic each other’s policies, the series started with an interactive timeline showing major developmental milestones – and which nation got there first. This is admittedly highly subjective, largely depending on your perspective; those who disagree with policies such as increasing the tuition fee cap are unlikely to view the first country to do so as the most progressive or innovative. However, it is a fun way to get a quick overview of major changes at UK and Australian universities over the past three decades, and track parallel developments in the two countries.

Continuing the interactive theme, the network challenged readers to guess the missing word in a series of quotes from the countries’ respective higher education ministers, commenting on their own and each other’s policies.

Which country’s universities are more collaborative?Focusing on the ever-growing emphasis placed on international collaboration, the series featured a blog post from Simon Marginson, a professor at the UK’sInstitute of Education and professorial associate at Australia’s University of Melbourne, who argued that the major difference between the two countries is the strength of Australia’s relationship with fast-growing Asian nations such as China, Taiwan, and Singapore. In contrast, Marginson argued, “Among all the English-speaking nations, the UK has the lowest rates of research collaboration in dynamic Asia.”

The wide range of research collaborations involving UK universities and Australian universities was showcased in a photo gallery, with comments from participating academics highlighting some of the benefits and challenges of these kinds of cross-planet projects. Time zone differences definitely came top of the ‘challenges’ pile, though this was viewed in more positive terms surprisingly often. As the University of Melbourne’s Vanessa Teague put it, “we get twice as much work done in a week: one side works while the other side sleeps”.

This piece was complemented by blog contributions from two academics who have each experienced working within both UK and Australian universities. Interestingly, both viewed their home country as less successfully collaborative at a national level compared to their new host. Chris Elders, who moved from working in UK universities to join Australia’s Curtin University last year, said, “I am struck by the much greater sense of collaboration between institutions, compared with the more fiercely competitive atmosphere in the UK.” Yet Emily Hudson, who made the move in the opposite direction to join Oxford University in 2012, said she’d experienced a greater sense of collaboration in the UK: “I have found that the UK’s size and proximity to other countries makes it far easier to maintain connections with the broader academic community.”

Which country has the better higher education funding system?

With higher education funding close to the surface of any debate in the sector, several contributions to the series explored funding choices already made by the two countries, as well as those looming in the near future. Deakin University’s Jane den Hollander argued that proposed cuts to higher education funding in Australia could lead to fewer choices for students unable to afford hiked up tuition fees; potential job losses and cuts to academic salaries; and increased debt for the poorest students and graduates – meaning more student loans remaining unpaid.

Australian National University’s Ian Young explored the issue of deregulating fees, highlighting this as an example of the two countries’ tendency not to learn from each other’s mistakes. The UK government, he argued, should have known that almost all UK universities would charge the full £9,000 maximum rate when this was cap introduced, by looking at the Australian precedent. Concluding that the only way to ensure there is real price competition is to deregulate entirely, he suggested that this is the most practical – if not always popular – pathway for both countries.

But Gill Wyness and Richard Murphy, each holding positions at two UK universities, were keen to warn against following the Australian example too readily. While recognizing the appeal and apparent strengths of Australia’s higher education funding system, they argued that the Australian model demands higher taxpayer contributions, risks deterring lower-income students from studying certain subjects for which fees are higher, and has also raised concerns about a lack of quality control in entry requirements or completion standards.

Which is ahead on equal access?

Access to Higher Education

Throughout the series, questions of equal access and treatment recurred, with a live chat dedicated to the question of whether removing the cap on enrolment numbers is really likely to mean increased access to higher education for those from lower-income backgrounds.

Curtin University’s Tim Pitman pitted Australian and UK universities against each other on the question of social mobility, highlighting the major ground still to be covered by both countries in the area of equal access. Overall, he concluded, the picture remains similarly depressing in each nation, while calling for continued efforts to find better ways of defining ‘disadvantage’.

A contributor to the ‘Academics Anonymous’ column was not so hesitant to criticize. Speaking of her experience of “persistent verbal abuse” and various other tactics designed to halt her career progress, she said she’d found leading UK universities to be much more rigidly hierarchical and sexist than their Australian counterparts.

But Australian universities also came under fire, in a contribution from the National Tertiary Education Union’s Celeste Liddle. Highlighting the challenges of equal access faced by Indigenous students and staff members in Australia, she predicted even tougher times ahead following planned government cuts to higher education funding.



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