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The idea of the university

August 29th, 2004

Before we get bogged down in the election, I thought I’d do a quick post on this piece that caught my eye. It was a piece in the Age in the long-running dispute between Melbourne University Private and Senator Kim Carr, Labor Science and Research Spokesman. Here’s what caught my eye.

[Carr] claimed five of the 12 research publications MUP had produced up to June 30 this year did not meet Commonwealth Department of Education, Science and Training guidelines and suggested there were doubts about another five.

The university, in its final submission to the committee on Thursday, denied making any false claims, maintained its research report had been properly audited, and said its research publication rate was almost twice the national average (emphasis added).

I thought this must be a misprint. An entire university with 12 publications in a year? I get more than that[1], and so do quite a few other researchers. And how can this possibly be “above the national average?”

It turns out that MUP, which has an annual budget of more then $50 million (this would be about half the budget of small public university, IIRC) claims to have had only 7 academic staff for the year in question and to have 11 (full-time equivalent) today. For such a small group, 12 publications is not too bad, though it’s not stellar either (you can read the whole list in this PDF file) . But there’s clearly some sort of category mistake when this is claimed to be the output of a university[2].

This dispute came up in relation to legislation giving MUP the status of a university for FEE-Help and similar purposes. I haven’t looked at this closely enough to express a firm opinion. But, in the ordinary sense of the term, MUP is obviously not a university.

fn1. This covers books, book chapters, journal articles and conference papers.

fn2. Of course, at their very beginnings, Australian universities had only a handful of academic staff. But MUP is clearly a big business, in which the academic bits account for only a minimal fraction.

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  1. Tony Healy
    August 30th, 2004 at 01:47 | #1

    Like you, I think this smells. It’s also relevant to your post of 18 July, about disastrous ventures overseas. I am curious as to the extent these “private” ventures are simply ways to quarantine naive business ambition from the university itself and, if so, whether the universities have lost site of their role.
    I also note in the research report that the criteria for MUP is to publish one paper per staff member per year. Perhaps that is the criterion that the newspaper report was referring to?

  2. Tony Healy
    August 30th, 2004 at 01:50 | #2

    Aagh. Should be “lost sight of their role.”

  3. August 30th, 2004 at 14:23 | #3

    Melbourne University Private is apparently on the threshold of suing Kim Carr for defamation. See:

    http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/08/28/1093518160677.html

    It will be an interesting case to watch if they do go ahead with it. Carr is hardly the only outspoken critic of MUP, and so the ersatz university could soon find itself in the position of having more defamation writs than research articles on the go at any on time.

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