Thursday, June 02, 2011

Public policy & Australia's failing universities

This one has been well covered in the general Australian media (Kim Carr bows to rank rebellion over journal rankings for example) and on blogs (cf Legal Eagle's ERA journal rankings are dead – hurrah, hurrah!), but I wanted to make a personal comment.

Over the last few years I have written a fair bit on the misuse of measurement in both management and public policy. A key part of my argument has been that you tend to get what you measure, with things not measured or easily measurable pushed to the side. It's part of a trend to what I have called mechanistic management and is directly linked to thought patterns created by the rise of the computer.

I have had a particular interest in the education sector for a very long time.  For that reason, part of my writing covered the application of measurement approaches and associated mechanistic management in Australian higher education. I also looked at the rise of corporatist approaches in higher education.

When ERA or Excellence in Research for Australia (don't you love the modern public lingo?) was launched, I looked at it because it seemed to me that it was just another complication inflicted on universities. I then became very concerned because it seemed to me that it, and especially the way journal rankings were being applied, were actually twisting research.

I admit to my biases here. There is first the general bias flowing from previously reached conclusions. Then, too, there were my specific concerns about ERA's impact on multidisciplinary working and on some of the subject areas that I have a specific love for.

The decision by Minister Carr to alter the way that  journals are ranked under ERA is a recognition that the problems I pointed to were occurring, although I think that both the Minister and his education bureaucrats could benefit from a course in plain English. I find their material hard to digest. However, it does nothing to allay my broader concerns.

Tonight on the ABC's 7.30 report Australian Treasurer Wayne Swan placed great emphasis on the role that the Government's broad education reforms would play in improving productivity. I blinked.

So far as Australian higher education is concerned, I know of no evidence to suggest that all the tinkering and changes of recent years, perhaps the last twenty years, has led to any improvement in the standards of Australian higher education. Indeed, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest the opposite.

What do I mean by standards?

I start with the quality of education received by students. Note that I am using the word education, not training. Class sizes have increased, while the level of personal interaction between staff and students has declined. Industry complains about the standards of graduates. The computing and communications tools that should support education have become a substitute for education.

I work in the on-line world. I have worked as a strategic consultant and trainer for much of the last twenty years. Central to my work has been the concept of fitness for purpose. That concept has been largely lost in the need for mass delivery in the most cost-effective fashion.

Turning now to research. Here things get so complicated that I find it hard to know where to begin.

I said that I had biases, so let me start with a purely personal perspective. In some of the areas that I am interested in, there is actually less research done now than there was twenty or even thirty years ago. The last book on the prehistory of Northern NSW was published in 1974. There has been fight after fight just to retain basic agricultural research facilities.

More broadly, across Australia the quantum of free research has diminished. Research has become the handmaiden of other interests. It has also become tied up in increasingly complex and unstable policies and procedures.    

  We live in a pecking order world in which research "excellence" has to be benchmarked against some form of international standard. But to what end? Why have we adopted this approach?

To illustrate what I mean, let me start with a very basic question, using one of the criteria used to justify current approaches.

Is the research carried out in Australia in the first decade of the twenty first century likely to yield the same relative national benefits in economic terms to that carried out in, say, the 1920s? I think that the answer is almost certainly no and for a very practical reason: the 1920s' research and especially that in agriculture was driven by local needs and involved local people. Results went into application quite quickly. That is not true today.

Again, we come back to a measurement confusion.

The big research intensive Australian universities attempting to compete in an international market for students and research funds greatly value internationally competitive research measured by standard indices for both ego and competitive reasons. Whether they provide a good education is quite a different question.

If the aim of Government policy in the university research area is to support international marketing efforts by Australian universities, then fine. But it is not. Official policy actually rests on two key assumptions.

The first is that measuring research excellence by some form of international benchmark is good in itself. The second is that achievement of such an outcome will somehow flow into some form of economic and social benefit for Australia. Neither assumption is actually very sensible.

In my years as a manager and consultant, I have often noticed how both management and official rhetoric actually reflects what is happening on ground in a strangely distorted mirror like way. The emphasis on the importance of people in the 1990s coincided with restructuring and process re-engineering. The emphasis on the importance of brands and branding coincided with the greatest period of brand destruction in history. To my mind, the current policy rhetoric in higher education with its emphasis on standards is very similar.

Australian higher education is actually becoming something of a mess. This may sound extreme. Perhaps it is. But consider the following bits of evidence in no particular order:

  • Scandals over marking driven by overseas student needs have affected a number of universities
  • Our universities are marked by a large increase in the number of casuals on one side and a rapidly aging permanent academic workforce on the other. Replacement of the academic workforce is becoming a very real issue, and it's actually not clear where the people will come from despite the presence of the casuals
  • Heavy reliance on overseas full fee paying students has created very real vulnerabilities, as evidenced by Monash lay-offs
  • Course instability has become a significant problem for students as offerings are withdrawn or restructured
  • Many disciplines have vanished in specific universities since they cannot be justified on low numbers given the financial metrics now applied. With the move to "competitive" universities, I have put competitive in inverted commas because its not real competition, Universities Australia has promoted the idea of hub and spoke universities just to retain some teaching in niche areas.

And in all this, many students themselves are simply unhappy with the current standard of offerings.

I accept that I am old fashioned and out of touch, a dinosaur in the modern Australian university era. Yet as I listened to a conversation the other night about a possible private-public partnership involving an Australian university, I couldn't help being struck by the disconnect between that conversation and the real role of universities.

Finally, I have brought up a page consolidating some of my past posts on higher education. It doesn't include some of the supporting management posts.


Thomas said...

Hi Jim.

Just a quick question that I imagine will irritate you to no end ... I know this because we have very rarely seen eye-to-eye when it comes to university issues haha!

You seem to have a problem with universities cutting back on the 'options' that are made available to univerities, and 'focusing' themselves around core areas. I ask, at what point do you think a university has a right to do this (cutting)?

In my mind, a university isn't obliged to offer any and every course but should be offering the courses that can sustain the university's viability (both financially and, in a sense, 'reputation-ly'. Now I know that you won't agree with that, so I am interested where you think the line exists (if there can be such a line) between providing a course/subject/degree and not providing it.

All the best!

Thomas said...

Sorry Jim, there's a typo in the previous:

"You seem to have a problem with universities cutting back on the 'options' that are made available to univerities"

Should read:

"You seem to have a problem with universities cutting back on the 'options' that are made available to university students"

Jim Belshaw said...

Thomas, I have no problems with universities specialising, nor do I believe that course structures should be set in stone. I have in fact argued in certain contexts for greater flexibility. When Helen considered enrolling at SU, I was struck by just how inflexible course structures and subject combinations were at that point because they had a business unit focus that was not easy to cross.

I also have no difficulty with competition between universities if it's real competition.

The problem that I was trying to address in this post were what I saw as growing systemic difficulties and rigidities brought about by the interaction between changing Government policies and individual university responses.

One feature has been an increase in overhead costs due in part to the need to accommodate Government requirements. These costs have to be spread across the student base, making it harder to fund smaller courses that cannot capture economies.

It may be perfectly rational for a university to do away with such courses, but at a system wide level the effect is reduced student choice.

Thomas said...

Thanks Jim. That clears up some lingering questions I had.

Hope all is well.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Thomas. Noted your passing comment on your blog. Tsk! Things are well, although a bit disconnected because the family is doing so many things.