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Something of great significance happened last week that in the hubbub of the budget and forthcoming election seemed to pass with a mere whimper. All the more surprising because this event happened at the very time we are looking at innovation and talking about transitioning our economy from resources to services. Put simply – from digging to innovation. And where do we expect to see much of this innovation to come from? Our universities of course.

Last week the Times Higher Education World University Rankings published their top 100 most influential universities. For the first time two Chinese universities are featured in the top 100. The most influential university in China according to THE is Tsinghua in at a very creditable 36th. Established in 1911 and located in Beijing it has over 33,000 students just over 50% of whom are postgrads.

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It will not be a surprise to most that the quality of tertiary education in China is on the rise. After all with rising affluence comes an aspirational middle class who see the road to prosperity for their children very much rooted in a sound education at a university of repute. In the past this has ordinarily meant going offshore and Australia’s learned institutions have only been too willing to oblige. When we look more parochially at Queensland, my home State this means our academic powerhouse the University of Queensland (UQ).

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What’s wrong with this picture now though? Well for starters only five Australian universities have made it into the top 100 with our top performer University of Melbourne falling short of Tsinghua by some seven places at 43. UQ comes in at a dismal 81-90 (they bracket quite a few this low in the rankings). Even Peking University out ranks our number one performer coming in at 41.

How long before middle class parents in China decide that their aspirations for their children can be better realized without leaving home? The knock-on impacts to the Australian economy could be quite far-reaching, especially as the transitioning of the economy envisages a significant role for higher education as a revenue generator. We are looking at innovation and services to take up where coal and iron-ore once held sway. If we consider education as a commodity we might find it will quickly move to where the biggest bang for the buck can be achieved. We might well be in for a shock if this means Chinese universities preferred to our own.

Riding the tail of the Asian Dragon is beginning to prove a darn sight more challenging than just jumping on board, Daenerys Targaryen style, and holding on for dear life. Our offering to foreign students needs to be made highly relevant and worth the extra money that parents and students have to shell out to support their studies. I suspect we need to work a lot smarter and harder in this area.

If we are to regain reputation perhaps we need to start thinking the unthinkable? And what is the unthinkable? The merger of universities to create institutions of scale able to cut a swath in the cut-throat world of attracting foreign students and securing research funding. For many this is impossible given the tradition and legacy of these venerable institutions. To that I say think again. In 2004 The University of Manchester merged with the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST). This wasn’t a mere case of a big university swallowing up some lower rated minnow. UMIST was where Rutherford and his team split the atom. Between them they have 23 Nobel Prizes. An institution dating back to 1824 surely has more tradition than one (UQ) which was established in 1909. If they have done the unthinkable it is beholden on us to at least consider it.

Perhaps it’s too big a step to merge two universities from the outset. Management theory would suggest undertaking a pilot study. A more palatable way and I think almost an imperative, would be to ‘float off’ a faculty. I could think of no better candidate than the business schools. Brisbane, our capital city has three universities (UQ, QUT and Griffith) each sporting their own business school with competing MBA programs. The joining of these in pursuit of the lucrative Asian market would create an institution of real scale, capable of making its mark internationally. It could be named Queensland Business School or Brisbane Business School. The name though is much less important than the concept.

What is slightly concerning is that there doesn’t seem to be a push for such an initiative. I remember mentioning it one time at an MBA fair to all three business schools only to be told in no uncertain terms that it was both unthinkable and unachievable. I have a Henley MBA. We were taught to critically and constantly challenge the status quo. Why then have the Deans of the three Brisbane business schools not done likewise? Surely as a strategic option it is what many of the textbooks used to teach in their courses would promote as a sensible way forward. The world of business – the domain in which they teach – is a constant changing environment where mergers and acquisitions, in the best interests of the business, are quite common. Tradition, in business, is a sentiment that is seldom part of the decision making process. Going down with the ship, or sliding in the world rankings cannot be allowed to continue. We have a reputation to hold and improve. Perhaps only innovation can enable us to claw our way back before it’s too late?