Uni researchers top Australia's most trusted list

23 October 2019

If we are to design the best possible universities for 21st century Australia, we need to make sure we understand and meet the needs of 21st century Australians | ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt

University researchers are among the most trusted groups in society, with media one of the least trusted, according to a major new poll of everyday Australians.

The 29th ANUpoll explores public attitudes to universities and is released today. 

The survey, drawn from a representative sample of the population, found a high-level of public confidence in education institutions, with just over eight in 10 Australians saying they had confidence in university researchers.

Universities, school teachers, university lecturers and schools garnered almost as much trust, with just under 8 in 10 Australians saying they were confident in them.  

With only two in 10 Australians saying they trusted them, the press propped up the list of remaining institutions, with the public service, major Australian companies, the Government, and banks and financial institutions above them - in that order.

ANU Associate Professor Nicholas Biddle, who was the lead researcher on the ANUpoll, said society's trust in a wide range of institutions had been steadily declining in recent years.

"But clearly, universities and their researchers and lecturers are resisting that broader trend," he said. "It points to universities providing society with something people value and are confident in.

"Conversely, the generally low level of confidence in the press, the Federal Government, and banks and financial institutions raises serious concerns about the proper and robust functioning of Australia's political and financial system."

It's not just in labs and libraries where universities were well regarded by the Australian public - but also lecture theatres. A clear majority of Australians, around six in 10, agreed or strongly agreed that universities were teaching students the important things they need to know.

And five in 10 people think universities are teaching students the things they need for both the current and future workforce.  

ANUpoll also asked Australians what they thought the roles of the university were, with more than nine in 10 saying one of the roles was to develop new ideas.

The same amount of people think a university's main role is to train young Australians for the future workforce, while just under nine in 10 think it is to provide an environment for controversial ideas to be expressed and debated.

ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt said it was vital universities understood how the public perceived them and their role in society.

"Taxpayers, employers, students, governments and businesses are our ultimate end users. It is for their benefit that we ultimately exist," he said.

"So it is vital we understand the perspectives of the millions of people who live their lives beyond our campuses every day - so that we can ensure we help our nation move forward, whether it be extending knowledge, driving innovation, training future leaders and workers or enhancing public debate and decision making.

"If we are to design the best possible universities for 21st century Australia, we need to make sure we understand and meet the needs of 21st century Australians. And that we are places of higher education open to and valued by all Australians."

Policy challenges also in the spotlight
The ANUpoll also takes a deep dive into two key policy debates for universities: academic freedom and international students.

The poll shows a little over five in 10 Australians (52.8 per cent) think the current mix between foreign and domestic students is about right. Very few Australians think that the proportion of foreign students should be increased, whereas a little under five in 10 (46.1 per cent) think universities should be educating fewer foreign students and more domestic students.

In a very important finding, those Australians who were currently attending university were far less likely to think that foreign students should be reduced compared to those who had never attended.

Associate Professor Biddle said: "This finding gives some support for the view that exposure to foreign students brings a more positive attitude and that domestic students who interact with foreign students on a daily basis are actually quite supportive of their peers attending universities in Australia."

On the question of academic freedom, four in 10 Australians strongly agree academics should be able to express views that are different from the views of the government of the day. 

Just under four in 10 Australians strongly agree academics should be able to focus on research without fear of funding constraints.

A similar number strongly agree Australian universities should invite speakers with a variety of ideas and opinions to campus, including speakers whose perspectives are very different from most students.

Findings from the latest ANUpoll are available at:
https://csrm.cass.anu.edu.au/research/publications/universities-australia-attitudes-and-challenges