Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Are the wheels starting to come off in Australian higher education?

One of the difficulties that can arise with change lies in the fact that change can outrun the capacity of those involved to respond. We see this in reorganisations: change brings pain, but any gains come a little later. If the change is too big, or if another change comes on top of the first too quickly, the organisation can falter or even fail.

Failures in corporate re-organisations, as an example, are common. The CEO who restructures to improve the bottom line is often forced, or his or her successor is forced, to restructure again within a relatively short time period.

One of the reasons for this is that change of this type disrupts the way the organisation has worked. Organisations are about people as well as structures. Much of the workings of organisations depends upon the knowledge people have of each other and of the way that things are done. Disrupt that, and immediate efficiency drops.

The recent move to mega departments in the NSW Government is a recent example. There are arguments for and against the move itself. But the first effect was to slow down Government because all those involved had to work out how the new system might work.

I mention this because I get the strong impression that the wheels are starting to come off within Australia's higher education sector. This area has been prone to policy instability for many decades, tugged first one way and then another by changing Government policies driven in part by fashion. The effects at individual institution level have been quite profound.

Part of the difficulties faced by Australia's universities is that, like schools, they are affected by a range of policies in ways not always clear to policy makers.

The debates over immigration are a case in point. The tightening of visa requirements on overseas students were driven in part by emerging scandals in the vocational sector, but also reflected broader views and issues including domestic politics and changing views on immigration that had nothing to do with the international education sector as such. Increasingly, it looks as though the collateral damage done to Australia's international education exports will be very severe.

This may not matter to some. There was a problem that needed to be fixed. Fair enough, perhaps. However, it would appear to me that the results so far as international education is concerned were not properly recognised, nor thought through. Did the policy makers really intend to do long term damage to Australia's position in the international student marketplace? I doubt it.

Another challenge at the moment is the debate over regulation and quality control within the higher education sector. I find the details and implications quite confusing. Where, for example, does the idea of a university as a community of scholars fit in all this? Or is this no longer relevant?

I do know that all universities are creating increasingly complex internal structures to try to manage their myriad of relationships with Australian Governments and especially the Commonwealth Government. The costs involved are quite substantial. I haven't attempted to calculate the increase in central overhead costs, but each dollar spent in this way is a dollar not spent on education or research.

One particular difficulty that all universities face is that their revenue streams have become more unstable, bitsier, more uncertain. In the overseas student case, for example, some universities have gained up to a third of their revenue from this source. Clearly, they now face a major problem.

Competition for domestic students has increased sharply, partially as a result of problems with overseas students, more because of the foreshadowed changes to funding rules. University responses have varied. The University of New South Wales, for example, has gone for growth, over enrolling new students by a reported 17 per cent. By contrast, the University of New England which does not have access to the same student numbers in its immediate area, has decided to stay smaller and focus instead on the quality of education and of the university experience. UNE may have no real choice, but it does also reflect differences in views about university education.

Part of the reasons for the changes that have taken place link to ideas of the value of competition between universities and of diversity within the university sector. However, this is a very constrained form of competition since it takes place within an increasingly complex and controlled sector; the real competition is competition for funds; the education experience can take second place.

The changes that have taken place flow down within universities, affecting structure and staffing. Its not just the increase in overhead cost. People costs are the largest cost within universities. The more unstable funding, the greater the flexibility required in staffing. The recent strike at the University of NSW linked directly to the desire of management to have contractual arrangements with staff that would give the University flexibility in staffing arrangements. More broadly, the use of part time or casual staff to provide tutorials or marking has on reports become something of a scandal in some institutions.

In addition to changed staffing arrangements, all the universities display increasing instability at course level and in structural terms. I am not quite sure how many reorganisations Sydney University has been through, for example, over recent years. I lost count at three.

Looking up from the base, from the perspective of the ordinary staff member, people live in a world of instability in which changes in leadership or in policies or programs flow through to constant changes on the ground that people have to respond to. Longer term planning at course or unit level is very difficult in these circumstances.

In all this, the constant mantra is about the need for reform. Reform itself is a slippery word, because it just means to change, but also carries the connotation of to improve. It is far from clear to me just what, if any, improvements are likely to flow from current policy settings and associated programs. It is all far too complicated for any mere mortal to understand.

What, I think, we can be sure of is that the multiple and sometimes conflicting objectives and expectations along with policy rigidities risks creating a very real mess.  

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