The ANU must redesign itself as an elite, Harvard-style institution to differentiate from other Australian universities, says Nobel Laureate Professor Brian Schmidt.

In his Order of Australia Association-ANU speech on Thursday 24 October, entitled “The future of the ANU and its role in Canberra”, Professor Schmidt outlined his vision for the ANU as a more prestigious but smaller university. The speech followed Professor Schmidt’s publication of an editorial in The Australian on 23 October stating that “the winds are blowing the wrong way for ANU”, with declining Federal Government research funding and indiscernible differentiation from other Australian universities.

Professor Schmidt emphasised that the challenging ideas in his speech arose out of a love and passion for the future of this institution, before highlighting the undergraduate population as a strength of the ANU, and as an area for several key changes.

Students should be admitted on the basis of both ATAR and an interview, he suggested, and student numbers reduced from 10,500 to 8,000. In doing so, a greater proportion of students could live on campus in first year and benefit from academic-led colleges akin to Oxford and Cambridge. Smaller student numbers would also enhance the ANU’s ability to deliver more intimate tutorials and a “MOOC-proof” research-led style of education. These changes would make it more difficult for local students to attend ANU, but Professor Schmidt also suggested that “just because you live in Cambridge doesn’t mean you expect to go there.”

However, reimagining the undergraduate population in this way would come at a significant cost – approximately $60 million according, to Vice Chancellor Ian Young.

Professor Schmidt proposed other drastic changes in the realm of research including re-evaluating tenure, focusing on highly productive and creative early-career researchers and building ties with industry. He also proposed the physical joining of the ANU and CSIRO Black Mountain campuses, to allow greater collaboration and sharing of skills and knowledge.

The ANU was originally created, according to Professor Schmidt, as a nucleus for world-class research, existing to strengthen and enhance Australia’s higher education sector. The ANU’s real competitors, he said, are the huge, emerging Chinese universities and well-established elite US institutions. To achieve differentiation and complementarity, Professor Schmidt believes that the government funding model requires a significant overhaul.

Being a small university in a small city, the ANU faces difficulties competing with other large Go8 universities. Professor Schmidt noted that we cannot simply underwrite our research costs by cross-subsidising them through undergraduate fees, like the Universities of Melbourne and Queensland.

Furthermore, the current funding model means that the amount of money supplied per student is the same, and Professor Schmidt perceives this as a major policy flaw. The ANU used to receive government funding separate to other universities; however, in 2002, it was forced to switch into a competitive grants system which has since eroded its core funding block. Professor Schmidt thus called for a “sensible government policy that doesn’t clobber excellence.”

In an email to all staff, Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Young said of Professor Schmidt’s talk: “It is a topic likely to generate much debate. It is a debate I believe we should have and one that should be encouraged.” Whether or not Professor Schmidt’s proposals are taken up by the ANU remains to be seen.

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