Monday, May 21, 2012

Ironies in Australian higher education standards

I was really frustrated tonight. It's a little while since I have written on Australian higher education. Tonight I had intended to do so, and then I left a folder of clippings at work. How old fashioned you might say, clippings! Well yes, but it remains a way of saving information that is either not available on line (think fire walls) or very hard to find.

I cannot replicate exactly what I was going to say in the absence of my folder, but I do want to indulge in a short diatribe relevant to many of the points I make on the this blog.

Here in Australia, the Tertiary Education and Quality Standards Authority (TEQSA) is one of the latest of that growing myriad of national agencies established to enforce "standards" and "quality" in specific sectors of Australian life. Like all the rest, once created it starts dreaming up standards along with ways of enforcing and measuring compliance with its standards.

Let me now introduce the gang, sorry I mean group of eight. This group represents a certain number of Australian universities who describe themselves as "a coalition of leading Australian universities, intensive in research and comprehensive in general and professional education." In other words, they have pretensions.

Now the gang of eight has just complained, rightly to my mind, about the costs and distortions created by TESQA regulation. Part of their complaints bears upon the costs and misuse of standards. Here there is a rather delicious irony.

The Vice Chancellor of one of the gang, Sydney University, has been involved in recent months in an attempt to retrench some 100 tenured academics. The funds so saved are to be used in part to meet a maintenance backlog and to fund a new research centre. Sound reasonable? Well there is a little problem over and beyond the question as to why Sydney along with so many other institutions have been neglecting maintenance.

Given the decision to sack, the VC needed some form of objective criteria to select the necessary staff members. As I understand it, the decision was made to select based on the publication record over the preceding two years. This is where the irony comes in.

Among the general opposition, there was a global petition signed by experts in the field attacking one particular sacking of an internationally recognised academic well in progress on a new book who, sadly, had not published in the required way in the previous two years. So the application of blunt standards that the gang of eight complains about when applied to them are in fact applied by one of its leading members in its own activities. You see the irony?

  Mind you, this type of problem is not limited to the higher education sector.

One of the relatively new private sector jargon phases is the "strategic review". This is in fact code for we want to get rid of something, but need a justification!!

One of the points I was making in my last post, Sunday Essay - communications, risk and reform weariness, lay in the conflict between "reform" and "stability". Real reform is actually very difficult in an unstable world. A second point was the way in which the emphasis on communication wraps all change within the reform mantra.

TESQA is written up in a "reform" context, as were the Sydney University changes.

Well, it's time to end this fairly scrappy post. 


Anonymous said...

'Strategic Reviews' have been around since the dark ages - even before your trip to Greece. Wasn't that exactly what you were doing for Sen. Button in industry policy? I guess you mean its use as a polite metaphor for 'staff cuts'.

Not directed specifically to your Sydney Uni example, but do you think there ever has been an arbitrary rule-based review which did not disadvantage at least some 'stakeholders'?

Which is another term I loathe, along with 'clients'.


Jim Belshaw said...

I think that we did use the phrase "industry strategies" for the first time. However, we began with industry policy reviews; the strategies were the outcome.

I am actually not sure when the phrase "strategic reviews" first emerged in the way it's used now. But it's code not just for staff cuts but also for "let's get rid of this problem", "we want to be seen to be doing something," "we need to sell this business", "we need justification for doing something". Sadly, many organisations engaging in "strategic reviews" find that one such leads to another.

Agree with you second para and with your dislike of both stakeholders and the current misuse of the term clients.

Evan said...

Dreyfus in What Computer's Can't Do and What Computers Still Can't Do lays out how complexity can't be captured by rules. (My very interpretative summary.) Most relevant to this mania for measurement.

I guess people prefer 'clients' to "victims".

Anonymous said...

Hmm, just as yet another illustrious member of the gang, sorry, Group, of 8 is gutting the School of Music, after having put the sword through the Faculty of Arts, the School of Humanities (now renamed The School of Cultural Inquiry;whatever that means, for goodness' sake)and various individual Arts' subject areas. Non publishers are given the 'no thanks', despite their excellent teaching records, but hey who the hell cares about liberal arts' undergraduate teaching, especially when it doesn't attract the almighty international fee payers. At least one seriously well regarded, well published, brilliant teacher in my own discipline at Australia's 'top university' was disregarded for promotion, because of the attitudes of the warlords. Mercifully for them, 2 of the most inspirational and knowledgeable post-grad teachers I had, died before they could be sacked (sorry, made redundant) because of their slim publications record.What's it all about? More useless jobs in Chancelry for paper pushers and sycophants. If you think education is expensive, try ignorance; and that's exactly what GO8 is promulgating. Like much other stuff, it's now all about jobs for PLU -people like us, what used to be known as 'jobs for the boys'. And yes, we can blame generations of politicians of all colours as well. Long way away from exhorting the benefits of education for the sake of either a community of scholars, or an educated (as opposed to a quasi vocationally qualified) community at large. Undervalue the Liberal Arts, you undervalue the underpinnings of society at large. Am I seriously disgusted? You bet! Am I 'anonymous' for a reason? you bet? Did I see the beginnings of this creeping in @ UNE some time ago? No comment!

Jim Belshaw said...

Evan, I like your comment on clients! Centrelink recipients are not clients!

Jim Belshaw said...

Yes, anon, I saw it at UNE too and I have been on the public record for quite some time. I recognise your passion, and will make it the center piece of a post. I thank you.