Professor Peter Coaldrake has been deputy vice-chancellor of the Queensland University of Technology since July 1994. Before that he spent just over four years heading the Public Sector Management Commission of the Queensland Government. In 1995, he was a member of the Higher Education Management Review (Hoare) Committee appointed by the Australian Government to examine and improve the management practices of Australian universities. Professor Coaldrake recently returned from five months in the United States as one of two Australian Fulbright Senior Scholars for 2001-02. He examined several aspects of contemporary US higher education policy and practice in terms of their relevance for Australia. He has written several books and refereed journal articles and conference papers.
AIM: What is the best model for a learning institution in the 21st century?
Coaldrake: I am not sure that there is a single model. But at the heart of the matter is the need to strike a proper balance between collegial work and strategic direction and focus on performance. Universities need to think strategically about how they respond to a much more diverse and demanding student body, and how technology is reshaping concepts of time, place and space. Universities have to remain coherent as institutions while encouraging diversity and entrepreneurial activities in academic areas.
AIM: How would they do that?
Coaldrake: Some are probing new market opportunities as well as competing against traditional players in areas such as business and IT education. There are some real challenges for traditional players in all of this, not only because of the merging of education and training, but also because of the requirements of a more dynamic and demanding student population, and the way in which technology in particular is encouraging a blurring of our notions of campus-based and distance education, and between on-shore and off-shore delivered education.
AIM: Does expecting universities to draw more of their income from outside sources undermine claims that we live in a knowledge society?
Coaldrake: Universities would prefer, of course, to be more generously funded by the public purse, and it is also appropriate for governments to be reminded of their funding responsibilities. But in approaching this debate, we can look back and wish for the return of other times or look forward to ways of broadening our revenue bases and advance what we are doing in terms of benefiting the community.
AIM: But critics of the increasingly commercial focus of universities say that this compromises academic integrity and independence.
Coaldrake: Educational institutions and universities do have missions that are quite distinguishable from public companies or other bodies. The university’s role is to maximise social benefits for the community within financial constraints; whereas a business organisation has a primary responsibility to provide a return to shareholders, but within social constraints. Universities should not be apologetic about the role they play. But it is also silly not to recognise that we work within financial constraints, and that the community has a reasonable expectation that we should be accountable for our performance and our use of resources.
AIM: Compared with institutions such as MIT, Australian universities have failed to resolve the issue of incorporating commercial activities into academic career paths. Can you do both?
Coaldrake: I think we have to. In a field like information technology, it would seem highly unlikely in the future that one would seek to maintain academic staffing without the academic staff themselves going out to work in external environments. This would ensure that they are at the top of their fields and able to provide the best possible learning environment and content.
I question whether the traditional academic model can be sustained in a range of areas because of the difficulties of attracting people or because of the fast-moving nature of certain fields. We should be more open to the proposition of different academic workforce models. Perhaps we should encourage the expectation that people will move between the university and other sectors of the workforce more than they have in this country to date.