2002 – Research Specialisation

Attachment: CAPA Paper

Specialisation has become increasingly popular in 2002 as a potential solution to the difficulties faced by the Australian higher education sector. The current funding system, encompassing 38 public universities with broadly similar missions and programmes, is unsustainable without a significant increase in public investment in higher education. In the absence of increased funding, specialisation within the sector is intended to reduce the ‘overlap’ between institutions, so that existing funding is used more efficiently.

The term specialisation is used by politicians, policy officials and academics to refer to a variety of models of differentiation between universities. In broad terms, there are two very different interpretations of the form that specialisation should take. The first views the higher education sector in horizontal terms with the process of specialisation involving each university developing specific areas of teaching and research strength, whether in particular disciplines or in methods of learning such as distance or on-line education.

The second model of specialisation views the higher education system in vertical terms with specialisation involving the development of premier research universities at the top of an institutional tier, ranked above other predominantly teaching institutions or institutions that focus on specific regionally driven research.

Public discussion of specialisation this year has tended to focus on this latter, ‘vertical’ view of specialisation, rather than the former, particularly in the calls for one or two premier, internationally competitive Australian universities. At the same time, DEST’s Educational Profiles process requires universities to identify and foster areas of research strength, which conforms more with a horizontal view of specialisation. However, in the current funding environment universities are compelled to develop areas of research strength that will attract maximum competitive grant funding and private investment.

Recent government policy has consolidated previous trends to identify a few discipline areas that will attract a disproportionately large share of funding. Industry also pursues its interest in investing in clearly defined, mainly technological, applied R&D. The result is a system where universities all compete to foster applied scientific research in the same few disciplines, rather than less marketable basic research or research in the humanities. This competition takes place in a research funding environment where funds are allocated according to previous performance, which vastly advantages the older universities over those new institutions which are yet to consolidate their research capacity or fully develop their research infrastructure.

With these issues in mind, this briefing paper provides:

  • a discussion of the political agenda on specialisation,
  • a summary of different models of specialisation proposed by politicians, policy makers and academics,
  • an assessment of the potential impact of specialisation on postgraduate students.

Sources are provided throughout the paper, and suggestions for further reading and contact details for postgraduate associations currently working in this area are provided at the end of the paper.