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Excellence yes, but impact too

Wednesday, 26 November 2008


Striving to be the best by being the biggest, or the fastest, or the most cunning, is an evolutionary trait well established in the gene pool of animals including humans. Altruism is not.

It is therefore not surprising, in the context of several reviews impacting on higher education in Australia at present, that the leaders of some of our well-established universities would strive to position their University (but not necessarily Australia) for a better future. This likely will come at a cost to other universities, particularly those meeting a broader need, both in urban and rural areas.

Will the needs of human kind and the sustainability of the biosphere be enhanced by giving more to 'top' universities and less to others? I think not.

My pessimism emerges from Boston, Massachusetts, arguably the epicentre of 'the life of the mind' on the planet. Although now being the addressed, the Charles River in Boston has been so badly contaminated that it was not safe for humans to enter the water for over half a century.

Why did it take so long to address the problem? And keep in mind that according to some rankings, Harvard (in Boston) is the number one university in the world. Given the research strength of the universities in Boston, and the abundance of research funding compared to Australia (Harvard is reported to have some US$ 35 Billion in reserves), presumably lack of resources was not the issue.

Great contributions to knowledge come from Harvard and elsewhere but in the troubled world in which we live we should expect more. What is needed is a sharper focus on research that has a tangible impact in real time on the lives and well-being of our communities and on the sustainability of our environment.

At Edith Cowan University (ECU), as we undertake research at exacting international standards, we strive to serve our communities too. We are currently working towards solving real problems across the social, physical and environmental spectrum. Part of our focus in blue sky research (whilst we still have some blue sky) is to ensure that this new knowledge is of timely benefit to our communities.

Universities have done many wonderful things over several decades especially in my field of medical research. With appropriate funding, good ideas and a service focus, much more could be achieved. In Australia we have our own river problems and significant issues with diseases of largesse.

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