Thursday, March 17, 2011

Universities, "standards" and diversity

Issues and problems with Australian universities and university education have been much on my mind, so much so that I found my last Armidale Express column ending up on the topic even though I had started to write on something else.

At the moment, my eldest goes to one Sydney university, having left a second because of dissatisfaction with the teaching and course structures. Youngest goes to a third Sydney university, while my wife is chair of council of International House at a fourth Sydney university. I am also an adjunct of a university outside Sydney. So we have present or recent connections with five Australian universities.

I make this point not because it gives me any authority, but to help explain why I hold quite strong opinions on aspects of Australian university education, if indeed the word education can still be applied. You see my bias?

My main present personal research focus is on the history of Northern New South Wales, the broader New England. Obviously I consider that to be quite important. Herein lies a problem.

History at the University of New England scored a ranking of 3 out of 5 on the scales used to rank research at Australia's universities. That's not bad, but no banana.

The scales purport to show global rankings, but suffer from multiple problems. They seem to be essentially based on publications in certain international journals. They are biased towards the big, because the more staff you have, the more publications. They do not take into account specific national or regional needs, nor student interests. Finally, the focus on them twists university priorities towards improving position on the rankings as defined.

My position as an adjunct at UNE is an honorary one. However, it does (I think) bring my research into the scope of measurement should the university so choose. This won't help the university one little bit.

  I necessarily research and write on a part time basis. Last year I delivered two academic papers, one at the university, one to the Armidale and District Historical Society. I deliver another paper at the start of April. Beyond that, blogging has been my main written outlet, although there has been a strong history focus in my newspaper column.  This exposes material and helps generate interest.

Just keeping up with emails and requests is now a problem. For example, I am behind at the moment in the preparation of supporting material for the Museum of Australian Democracy on part of an exhibit the museum is mounting on petitions. 

None of this work can be properly measured or included in research rankings. To have an impact here, I would have to change my focus to generate material that can be measured. I don't intend to do that because it conflicts with other things I want to do.

Does any of this matter?

I won't bore you with the history of the historiography in my field, but interest peaked at the end of the 1970s. In many cases, I am now one of very few, sometimes the only, person researching and writing on topics connected with my history. The academic pipeline that once existed from honours to PhDs that fed into journal articles and books is largely empty. Those still writing, and there are some very prolific writers if not always in the required form, are all getting older.

Recently, there has been some resurgence of interest, but this is still in its early days.

   Again, does it matter?  Well, yes, I think that it does. Obviously I am biased. However, as an example, I find it a bit surprising and a little sad that my original honours work on the economic structure of traditional Aboriginal life in Northern NSW is still quoted all those years later. Very few honours students can claim this.

I would like to think that its because of its standard. Really, its just because replacement work hasn't been done.

Looking at it from the perspective of the University of New England, how can any university justify providing support to someone like me when that support does not provide measurable results of the type required to meet the performance indicators on which standing is based?

In my case, it probably doesn't matter for the actual level of resource support provided is negligible. The relationship provides a degree of structure, which was my original objective. A more important problem lies in the survivability of the very structures on which I depend. Here there can be no guarantees.

All our major universities have become very unstable from the viewpoint of those dealing with them, whether as staff, students, partners or outriders like me. The need for constant adjustment to meet externally imposed requirements, the corporate games now played by our major institutions, the way pecking orders are defined, make for constant change. 

To my mind, there is  a growing disconnect between top level policy and management in government and the universities and the bottom, the real multifaceted roles that universities play with staff, students and in their local areas.

I was going to give some further examples here, but this has become a time consuming post at a time when I am meant to be doing other things. So to finish with a final comment.

In some of my management writing I have looked at the inverse relationship between management fashions and on-ground realities; HR and the importance of people coincided with restructuring, outplacement and process re-engineering; the importance of IP and brands coincided with the greatest period of brand destruction in Australian history; the need for delegation and empowerment coincided with the thinning out of middle management and the introduction of command and control management techniques.

Would I be unduly cynical if I said that the current emphasis on university standards and on improved teaching reflected the same pattern and for the same reasons?  

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