Saturday, December 29, 2012

Saturday morning musings - 2012 & the gift of friendship

For those who celebrate Christmas, I hope that you had a happy time. May 2013 be a good year for all of us!

As always happens, the run up to the Christmas season in the media was marked by reflections on the  year past and the prospects for the year ahead. I guess that I was no different, although I have been taking a short break from blogging. So this morning I am going to take you for a short idiosyncratic wander through the year past and year ahead.

Over at Club Troppo, Paul Frijter's The best news of 2012? posed this question:

Here is a question to put to you over Xmas time, the season of joy and hope: what has been the best news for you this year in the sense of the most uplifting development in Australia or the world?

My nomination was the always slow and often very fragile improvement in the human institutions designed to prevent conflict and reduce injustice, including especially injustices perpetrated on people by their own governments. It is easy to lose sight of this when we look at some of the examples around us, but the progress is there.

On the negative side, the thing that made me saddest in 2012 was the destruction wreaked on the historic buildings in Timbuktu in the name of religion. This may sound such a small thing compared to otherFile:Sankore Moske Timboektoe.JPG tragedies, but I took it personally.

I have always wanted to visit Timbuktu. This is (was?) the Sankoré Madrasah.  When I was a child, my father used to talk about his desire to visit Timbuktu. It was a place of mystery and remoteness. Somehow, I absorbed this romantic image.

Anybody who reads this blog on a regular basis will know of my love of history. It fascinates me. I love the patterns and linkages, I love the discovery of new things, I really like the way my knowledge builds. I have never been to Africa, let alone Timbuktu. As I read the newspaper reports, I felt a sense of dismay, that I had left my run too late.

That reference to newspaper reports provides a segue into another thing that made me sad in 2012, the continuing slow death of the newspaper. Again, this one affects me personally.

In January, I was taking pleasure that my long-running Belshaw World column in the Armidale Express had been used as a front page teaser in two consecutive editions of the Express. In February I and other columnists were unceremoniously dumped by the a new editor as part of a purge designed, in his mind, to make the paper more relevant to its local audience. In my case, I was replaced by a new column called the views of Gen Y. In September with another new editor, I returned to the paper with a another column, History Revisited, designed to add reader value in the magazine section of the paper. 

In January, the paper was published three times a week, while my subscription came to me in print form. Now the paper is published two times a week and my subscription comes to me on-line. There you have a local microcosm of the broader media changes that I so often write about. 

One thing that I have commented on in the whole change process are the risks of what we might call a search for relevance. Too often, the paper's readers are lost sight off.

Former Express editor Christian Knight had a very clear and accurate idea as to the demographic I appealed too; my readers were generally older and had strong local connections. They were also the people who bought the paper on a regular basis. Matt was new to the town and did not properly understand his market, applying generalised mental market models that did not accurately reflect local conditions. I came back with a specific mandate that really targeted my traditional readership demographic, although it was not put in that way. My own column is not on-line in public space, so to read it in the paper you have to buy either the print or digital version. 

The progressive shift of the paper towards the Fairfax e-model has affected my writing. Put simply, nobody is going to buy the e-edition of the paper because of my column, although it may help retain subscribers. Attraction of new readers depends upon the print edition and people who buy a paper as a one-off or on an irregular basis. If I grab and hold them, they will continue to buy the paper, or at least the Wednesday edition I appear in. Then some, a few, may migrate to the digital edition.

So now in the column, I try to write for immediate impact. Instead of writing just for an established circulation, I need to grab the one-off or irregular reader at once. I need them to come back. Obviously, this helps Fairfax, but also meets my deep need to be read. So far, my current editor is happy with the results.

This change in writing is part of a broader change. The year now finishing has been a period of experimentation, of changing the way I write to better satisfy me and the people who do me the honour of reading my scribbling's. These changes centre on what I have come to think of as Jim, the story teller. It hasn't always been easy to write this year, my output is down, but I am happy with at least some of the results. 

Returning to a broader canvass, the media changes that have taken place mean that I no longer bother with the Australian. I used to read the on-line version and sometimes buy the print version for its greater depth on particular issues. Now I don't bother with either unless there is a very particular reason for so-doing By contrast, I do buy the print edition  of the Financial Review several times a week just because of the content.

The progressive changes in the mainstream media including TV have also changed my research patterns. Increasingly, I rely on fellow bloggers for leads or go to original sources that I already have access too. The mainstream media has become less relevant. 

2012 was also the year of the e-book. In December, our fellow blogger Winton Bates published Free to Flourish via Amazon. He described the process in How easy is it to self-publish a Kindle eBook?. This post was one of a number of posts on both this blog and Winton's as we and others look for ways of broadening our reach.

More broadly still, on a number of occasions over 2012 I wrote somewhat sadly of the decline on the bookshop. The news here is not all bad actually, for book print versions are holding up well compared to other traditional media formats.

Let me illustrate.

This year I decided to give books as Christmas presents. I did so because I knew that those presents would be well received. Normally, I shop at the big Eastgardens centre near where I live. That centre no longer has a bookshop. Instead, I did my Christmas shopping at Parramatta near where I am presently working. With the closure of Borders, Dymocks there was absolutely packed, far more packed than most of the stores, with queues at all the check-outs. I watched for a while, trying to count up the value of sales. It was impressive.

So one bookshop is alive and well. More importantly, I would be quite astonished if Westfield's Eastgardens does not target a book store as a new renter. While the direct dollars here may be small in the scheme of things, the potential customer flow-on effects are potentially significant.

Looking back over my 2012 posts, two things stand out in an Australian political sense. One is the continued obsession with apparently simple measurable targets, along with a constant failure to achieve any of them. The second is the sheer nastiness that seems to have infected Australian political life. Expect more of the same in 2012, since there must be a Federal election at some point. Anthony Green has an interesting analysis here on timing and the constitutional position.

Some of the nastiest fights can be expected in the Federal electorates of New England and Lyne where the two New England independents who put the Gillard Government into power face major challenges and are responding in kind. This is an example from New England.

Despite the nastiness, there has actually been a steady increase in the depth and scale of policy and political analysis outside the hothouse worlds of the various Australian parliaments and the twenty-four hour media whirl that surrounds them. This actually has an impact over time for, in Don Chipp's words, it does help keep the bastards honest!

In economic terms, 2012 was a year in which the global economy actually did a little better than expected, the Australian economy somewhat worse. To my mind, 2013 is somewhat problematic in global terms because of the combination of restrictive fiscal policy with highly expansionary monetary policy. The world is awash with money that is likely to lead to inflation and asset bubbles.  There is a de-facto economic arms race on centred on competitive currency devaluation.

This creates a very real risk that Australia will be squeezed in the middle. My best guess is that the Australian dollar will remain high. It's actually hard to see any other outcome at the moment. So expect more pain there. 

Well, time to move on.

My strong personal thanks to my fellow bloggers and all our readers and commenters for their stimulation and friendship over the year. I had written a post - Christmas, friendship and the internet world - to try to describe this, but then decided not to publish it because it was too revealing in a personal sense for I was trying to show how the different slices of my life fitted together and the relationships between those slices and my writing and the differing interactions to be found in each slice.   

Personally, 2012 was a tumultuous year. It was also a year in which I lived in a number of very different spaces. That's hard to explain. Seriously, the support I received over the year in both a personal and professional sense, the feedback I received from the things that I tried to do, the personal stimulation and the sometimes uncomfortable critiques, all created a depth and texture to my life.

There were responses on Facebook and Twitter, several thousand blog comments, many emails, cross-posts, gifts of books, invitations to speak or to visit and so it went on. Old friends re-established contact, new friends were made. Importantly, I found that old linkages between people were re-established, new linkages created. It was quite astonishing, and I struggled at times to respond.

To my mind, 2102 stands out as the year of friendship. And for that I am truly grateful!    

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Saturday morning musings - Swan, deficits and the importance of fat

The statement by Australian Treasurer Wayne Swan that the Commonwealth was unlikely to achieve a budget surplus this financial year came as no surprise.  Apart from some rather strange reporting in the Australian (Labor exposed as Treasurer Wayne Swan breaks surplus promise), I think that the major reaction among many was one of relief. I said strange reporting because of the inconsistency between the main take-home message provided by the "story" and the detail contained within it; this is political commentary masquerading as reporting.

Why relief? Well, the numbers have been suggesting for some time that a surplus was almost certainly unachievable. The fear was that in its desire to protect a political promise, the Commonwealth Government would be forced into silly spending cuts. The latest national account figures showed that the Government sector in general is now detracting from growth as a consequence of spending cuts. Further cuts would have added to this at a time when the economy is clearly off the boil. Forget the social policy arguments about the adverse effects of cuts. When the business sector as a whole starts arguing for the abandonment of the surplus target, you can be reasonably sure that there is a problem.

In all the commentary on the issue, one simple fact appears to have been forgotten. Some time ago, the papers carried stories that that the Commonwealth's expenditure review mechanisms had been called into action to try to find further savings. That's not unusual in itself. What was unusual was the timing, the lead up to the Christmas shutdown.

With the lights burning late at both Treasury and Finance, I think that Cabinet's Expenditure Review Committee was given some very unwelcome news. You can't do it mate, or at least not without very major pain. I suspect, too, that the advice was that you shouldn't do it.

One of the difficulties that the Commonwealth Government faced can be summarised as the problem of fat. More precisely, the absence of it. Fat has acquired a very bad name, yet fat serves a purpose. It provides a reserve of energy for use in hard time.

In a social sense, our obsession with fat has become dysfunctional, creating eating disorders including (ironically) obesity. In a management and public policy sense, when you thin down to the point that you can only do what you are doing now, you lose flexibility and the capacity to do new things. This has adverse effects on efficiency. Beyond that, it means that you can only cut further by reducing what you do, abandoning or significantly modifying major activities. Of course, this is sometimes necessary. But to do it just to preserve a single accounting identity is plain silly. 

So, finally, Treasurer Swan was forced to face reality, not the atmospherics of politics. A bloody good thing to. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Ramble around Richmond, NSW - the full series


I am a rambler by nature, insatiably curious about the world around me. The following series of posts tells the simple story of a day spent rambling  around Richmond.

For those, who don't know Richmond, it one of the five NSW towns established by Governor Macquarie.

The story does centre on Richmond, but given my rambling  nature it tends to wander from bulls in the early colony to a camel charge at  the Battle of Suez in the First World War.

I enjoyed writing the series. I hope that enjoy reading it. Taken in order, the posts are:

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Richmond Ramble 5 - Finale

In response to my last post in this series, Richmond Ramble 4 - at the gymkhana with a dash of India, my Indian blogging friend Ramana pointed me to another Indian link, the Australian feral camel. File:Bikaner Camel Corps.jpgHere I found that the imported camels included the Bikaneri war camel from Rajasthan as a riding camel.

Now in the way that these meanders go, that led me to another coincidence if not connection, the story of the Bikaner Camel Corps. This photo shows the Corps in Egypt during the First World War. Pretty savage looking camels aren't they, but camels are not known for their friendly disposition. My impression is that they are grumpy and inclined to spit!

In the last post I included a photo of the Australian Light Horse mounted on the Waler breed. Now this is where part of the connection comes in. At the Battle of Beersheba in October 1917, stormed the Turkish trenches in a famous cavalry charge. Now it turns out that in 1915 at the Battle of Suez, the Bikaner's routed the opposing Turkish forces in a camel cavalry charge. So cavalry in all directions!

Leaving the Gymkhana, we ventured into Richmond to buy some food for lunch. I have a long picnic tradition begun in childhood and carried through to today. I enjoy BBQ's, but with picnics the cooker (usually me) has more chance to relax. So we bougP1000945ht a chook, some salad, etc. I already had the picnic basket with me.

That done, we went for a wander around the older parts of Richmond. We didn't spend a lot of time, we were hungry, but I loved the older building and some of the traditional gardens. From there, we drove down the road a little to the lagoon to have our picnic.

It had begun to cloud over and the wind had come up a little. Still, it was a pleasant spot and we sat there and yarned. The par around the lagoon was full of birds, some of whom had clearly been fed.

My first reaction when I saw this one was that he was clearly a male, strutting around to attract attention from the nearby female.

I am not a bird person, at least not of the avian variety! But I do enjoy watching.


Lunch finished, we drove back to my friend's place for coffee and to look at some of the artwork. This is one example.  P1000960

This a very different one.


I was allowed to select two sketches of my choosing and then set out on the long journey home. It had been an interesting adventure,  

Monday, December 17, 2012

Richmond Ramble 4 - at the gymkhana with a dash of India

In my last post in this series, Richmond Ramble 3 - at the College, I said that had we paused for a while to watch a gymkhana but I was not going to give you a photo of that; I wanted to use them in a separate story! This is that story. 

I love the strange arcane connections I find in my rambles! It is interesting how remote India has become to many Australians when the connections between the two continents are so deep. India is all around us. We just don't see it!

Recent DNA testing (An Ancient Australia-Indian connection) shows connections between the Australian Aborigines and some groups in Southern India, suggesting that at least some of the first Aborigines may have come to Australia via India.

The First Fleet included two ships of the East India Company, with the new coFile:Light horse walers.jpglony falling within the company's legally mandated trading sphere. Not, mind you, that the commercial rogues of early Sydney paid much attention to that little constraint! And a good thing too, to my mind.

The first cattle in Australia were connected directly (Zebu imports from the sub-continent) and indirectly (the Cape of Good Hope cattle traced their origins to India) to the subcontinent.

Australian bred horses, the Walers, provided mounts for the cavalry forces of British India, first the cavalry of the East India Company and then that of the Indian Empire. Australian Walers were present during the tumultuous events of the Indian Mutiny that saw the end of indirect British rule through the Company and its replacement by Queen Victoria's great Indian Empire. The photo, a dramatic one, shows Australian Light Horsemen in the Middle East during the First World War.

Like so many things in Australia, the Walers were a mongrel breed drawing from many sources that became a distinct breed under the harsh Southern sun. We Australians are a mongrel breed, and all the better for that!

All this must seem a long way a way from quiet Richmond on a warm and muggy Sunday afternoon. Yet there is a connection. The car windows were down. My friend who was taking me around is an air-conditioned girl. She offered to drive in her new car with its comfort and air conditioning. I declined. I get badly claustrophobic in a closed car. I fP1000929ind that I am both too cold and too hot. It's just not pleasant.

Through the open windows we could just hear a distant noise and see movement. It was a gymkhana.

Now gymkhana is an Anglo-Indian derived from  Jamat-khana, an Hindi-Urdu word. Apparently it originally meant place of assembly, but then altered to denote a place where skill-based contests were held. Today in India it means a gymnasium or, more broadly, to a social and sporting club. In Australia, the term is used to describe a multi-game equestrian event intended to display the training and talents of horses and their riders.

This transmogrification is not surprising. Bore British officials and especially army officers with multiple servants and not a lot in the way of distractions needed an outlet. So they took to hunting and horse sports such as polo with a passion.

Now here I am going to drop down to individual photos. My first shot shows the players getting ready. Now this shot shows the other end of the field. Just a woman standing by two buckets. Pretty boring isn't it? But wait.  P1000932

The next shot is a bad one and I wouldn't normally include it. On go, two contestants ride off towards those buckets. The aim is to get there first.


Then they have to stabilise their horses and take their helmets off.P1000935

Then they have to stick their head in the bucket and grab, I think, an apple with their teeth.P1000936

Then get back where they came from as fast as possible. P1000937

It's actually quite fun to do or watch.

I had enjoyed the sport, but it was time to move on. I will finish this Richmond series in my next post. It's time for me to move on too!                 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Astrolabe Road gardening update

This is the latest photo of the main garden at Astrolabe Road with kvd and Legal Eagle's chairs in view.P1000982

One of the rules of home gardening is that you should eat what you grow. I haven't quite managed that!

I find that I don't necessarily want to eat what I have. Given this, what did I get from this little plot?

Pretty obviously from recent posts, a plethora of tomatoes: and three (!) beetroots, lots of silver beet, beans, a range of salad vegetables plus spring onions. Now I am replanting, while also rotating the other beds.

Time to continue with my gardening.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Richmond Ramble 3 - at the College

Continuing the story from Richmond Ramble 2 - end of an era at Hawkesbury Agriculture College, it was many years since I had last been in Richmond. The last time had been an air shFile:Harrier.gr7a.zd431.arp.jpgow at the Richmond RAAF base. There I had sat in the sun at the front of the Hawker de Havilland tent drinking beer and watching a Harrier jump jet perform on the tarmac just in front of me. The noise was deafening, but I had enjoyed every minute.

Sydney may be an especially big city in global population terms, but it sprawls. It's also become remarkably fragmented. People from different areas never meet, let alone mix. Talking to some of the Eastern Suburbs' young about my trip, I got blank looks. Where's Richmond? What's the Nepean River? It becomes the Hawkesbury River. Where's the Hawkesbury River? It's that big river you drive over just out of Sydney when you take the Expressway north. Oh!

I kid you not.

I don't have GPS in the car and prefer not to use it anyway. As an aside, remarkable story here in Australia about police having to rescue people mislead by Apple GPS. They ended up 75k from their destination in the middle of a semi-arid national park with no water. I got out the map and with with some additional help from Google maps plotted a course to avoid tolls.

I said that Sydney sprawled. My journey took me through the familiar territory of the inner west and then out past Parramatta where I presently work. Many kilometres later I turned right onto the Northern Road. This was territory that I used to known well since I often drove that road in my journeys between Canberra and Armidale. It's almost unrecognisable now, of course, because of the new housing. Finally, one hour twenty minutes after leaving home, I arrived in Richmond and collected a friend who had promised to guide me around Richmond starting with the University campus. P1000918

It's still not a big campus, but there was not as much left of the old College as I had expected.  In a way, this photo captures the changes. While the building itself has been designed to fit in architecturally, there is a considerable difference between the old ag college and the offerings of the NSW Police Leadership Centre.

Since this is a ramble, another digression. The NSW Police Force has been trying to increase the number of Aboriginal people in the force. One element of this is IPROWD, Indigenous Police Recruitment Our Way.

Run by TAFE NSW's Western Division in conjunction with a number of partners, IPROWD provides bridging courses at a number of centres across NSW designed to bridge the gap between the educational levels of many Aboriginal students and those required to enter the Police Academy at Goulburn. A total support package is provided that extends well beyond educational qualifications narrowly defined. Many of the students are housed in houses owned or built by the NSW Aboriginal Housing Office using funding from the Federal Government's National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing.

The program has been a considerable success measured by the increase in the Aboriginal intake at the Police Academy, as well as the success of IPROWD participants in gaining work elsewhere.    

Returning to my main theme, the Police Leadership Centre sits on a corner of a road that marks something of the heart of the old College. Just across the road are some modernised old cottages.P1000919

Just down the road is the old principal's residence, Yarramundi House. I wouldn't mind living there myself!


Yarramundi House is now a function centre, marked by a rather bad pun.P1000926

We wandered on. I was struck by the cricket oval. It's a very much a period piece, a particular style. P1000938

On our way, we paused for a while to watch a gymkhana. I am not going to give you a photo of that; I want to use them in a separate story!   We finished our tour at the old stables, now the student centre. P1000940

That ended the visit. It was time to get something for lunch.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Richmond Ramble 2 - end of an era at Hawkesbury Agriculture College

Continuing the story from Richmond Ramble 1 - all about some bulls, Richmond's role as one of Governor Macquarie's five towns was only part of my reason for visiting. Most of all, I wanted to visit Hawkesbury Agricultural College, now the University of Western Sydney - Hawkesbury. I had never been there, and it seemed an appropriate time to go.

The College's story is best covered in a debate held in the NSW Legislative Council on 9 September 2011 to mark a 120 year celebration.  

The College was established in 1891 by the NSW Department of Agriculture to provide practical farm training, This is an early photo of the college.  I chose it because it shows a girl. Women were not allowed to enrol in the College until 1971!

The College was very much a working farm. The training provided had a strong practical focus.

In 1974, the College became a College of Advanced Education as part of the changes sweeping Australian education that I have been describing in my higher education series. New courses were added such as nursing, but it remained a very small close knit institution. As change continued, the College became part of the University of Western Sydney in 1989. This was a wrench for many. Here I quote the Hon Niall Blair from the parliamentary debate I referred to earlier.

In 1989 Hawkesbury college joined the University of Western Sydney. Some of the traditionalists found this a hard transition because a new logo was to be used and the name "Hawkesbury" was going to be lost. Throughout that transitional period students were given the choice to have their degrees or diplomas awarded to them either from Hawkesbury Agriculture College or from the University of Western Sydney. Many students chose to have the name of Hawkesbury Agricultural College on their qualification, and I think I am right in saying that the Hon. Paul Green was one of them.

I am sure that all this must sound very interesting, but why am I being drawn to the old College now for my first visit? Well, just a few months after the parliamentary debate I heard a radio story that the first year agriculture course at Hawkesbury had been dropped because less than ten students enrolled.

This change is part of a broader change pattern. In the 1980s, there were 23 campuses around Australia providing agriculture and agricultural science degrees. By 2011, this had shrunk to just nine. Primary production may be coming back into fashion as a growth sector for Australia to fill an emerging global food gap, but this is not reflected in student numbers.

There is another factor as well, the growing homogenisation in Australian higher education flowing from mass institutions and mass education. Specialist organisations have to sell to their niches, whereas mass organisations are more passive. They tailor offerings that will attract the largest number of students in general; course offerings adapt to changing student demand. Whatever the market arguments, the end result has been a continuing diminution in niche offerings.

I had never been to the Hawkesbury Agriculture College. Now seemed appropriate to visit to mark the end of an era,  

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Richmond Ramble 1 - all about some bulls

I have been preparing material to finish updating my last higher education post, Fixing Australian higher education - problems with markets & definitions, and this has been sidetracking me from posting. But lurking behind the scenes has been something of an agricultural focus. And, no, I am not talking about tomatoes or my garden!P1000951

Last Sunday, I broke out of my self-imposed writer's ghetto and drove out to Richmond. Why? Well partly because Richmond is one of five towns established by Governor Macquarie and is quite a historic place.

This is St Peter's Anglican Church. The Wikipedia article says that it was designed in c1837 by Francis Clark, the Church notice board carries a 1841 date. The Church has those very plain symmetrical Georgian lines.

I have been writing a little about the early colony on this blog and elsewhere partly driven by the unfolding drama of the Obeid inquiry (Rum, money & power - NSW history repeats itself). NSW history does repeat. Here is an example of the latest reporting on the story. I so wish that I could be so unaware of my bank account!

As I said in the Express column written this week, John Macarthur was the rogue of rogues in a colony of rogues.

He persuaded the relevant Minister of the Crown to give him a large land grant surrounding the aptly named Mount Taurus. He forgot to mention, I am sure it was just an oversight, that the land grant was smack in the middle of a wild cattle herd built up from a small group of cattle that absconded soon after the first fleet arrived and was then not found for seven years.  So excited was Governor Hunter by the discovery that he named the area Cowpastures and established a reserve with a guard house to keep away poachers from the cattle.

For some obscure reason, the Governors in distant Sydney were not impressed with Macarthur's land grant. The newly appointed Governor Bligh went so far as to threaten to take some of Macarthur's land away. In his turn, Macarthur  was equally unimpressed.  Bligh was overthrown in a military coup loosely conducted within constitutional bounds. The relevant minister had a town named after him, Camden, Australia gained the wool industry on which it rode for so many years.

For John Macarthur's part, he went slowly mad tormented by his internal demons. But his empire survived.

I will continue this story in my next post.   

Monday, December 10, 2012

A bit about train smash, the recipe


The tomato glut continues. Sadly, I wasn't organised enough to get the new plants in on time. I now fear a looming tomato deficit, sort of a culinary fiscal cliff.

The last recipe I gave you in  Another simple meal at Astrolabe Road was actually a variant of train smash. I came home tonight to find that eldest's friend who is sharing with me until she goes to France had never heard of train smash. That was what we called it, and it was a favourite of my girls. G. is a vegetarian, but I normally served it with bacon.

Now what I did this time was chop some onion, a little garlic and the toms, Olive oil in the pan, heat, add the garlic, pepper and salt. Then add the onions. You need to give them a little time to soften.

P1000979 While all this was going on, I kept a bit of an eagle eye on my main meal. G was going out, so I train smash was just a snack.

After the onions had softened, I added the tomato and turned the heat down. I put on some bread to toast, buttered it, and then poured the train smash over it. Not to shabby, actually.

Being insatiably curious, I looked up train smash on the web. Here are a few recipes:

Here is my variant in the pan. 

I really had no idea that there was so much connected with the idea ofP1000980 train smash. Its like when I found out that the variant of French toast I cooked was actually a specific New England variety - Belshaw's World - New England masterchefs ponder regional dish!

Now all this has sidetracked me very badly. I was actually going to write tonight on a bit of bull, Oops! Okay, maybe all this is in fact a bit of bull.

Still reeling from the idea recorded in comments on my last post that kvd hates lemon, including lemon tarts,  I must move on. Bulls call. But I still struggle with the idea that a sensible man (and kvd is most sensible) could hate lemon. Aunt Kay, a country cook, cooked the most wonderful lemon tarts balancing the sweet and sour. Mum was pretty good, too.

I must move in the direction of bulls. More later.   


Ramana kindly provided me with this Indian version, Tamatar Ka Salan, of the type of dishes we have been talking about. This, Ramana suggests, is a good dish for tiffins. India has added many words to English. I was surprised to learn that tiffin actually derives from an old English slang word, so here we have an English word added to Indian English. Put that way, the comment actually sounds a bit silly since Indian English is, after all, English. But you know what I mean.  

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Another simple meal at Astrolabe Road


Completing my higher series is taking a tad longer than I expected. In the meantime, life goes on.

Friday night I didn't have a lot of food in the house, but didn't feel like going out. I have also been guilty of not eating garden produce as it becomes available.

Wandering out to the garden, I collected some tomatoes, spring onions and oregano. I also had a little bit of salami, some garlic and a few mushrooms.

I put some olive oil in a pan and heated it. I then added the garlic, pepper and salt and the oregano and stirred it around in the hot oil until the aroma seemed about right. I then added the spring onions and stirred that. A little later I added the chopped up tomato and the mushrooms. When they seemed about right, I added the chopped up salami.

It wasn't bad at all.  

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Fixing Australian higher education - problems with markets & definitions

I finished my last post in this series, Fixing Australian higher education - problems with the horizontal slice, with this statement:

From a higher education perspective, one of the biggest failures of all lay in the failure to understand the complex market dynamics now being created. I will discuss this in my next post.

I became profoundly pessimistic and indeed confused as I ordered my jottings for this post. I want to share those confusions with you by sharing some of the questions I asked in myself.

What is higher education?

A distinction used to be made between education and training. Education may have involved some skills acquisition such as learning to read and write, but at least beyond school it centred on knowledge and learning how to think. Training, by contrast, may have involved knowledge acquisition and thinking, but it centred on the capacity to do. The term vocational education covered certain forms of higher level training that contained a major element of knowledge and thought but also focused on certain professions. In the British system, the term technical education applied to vocational training centred on the trades.       

I recognise that I am shorthanding dreadfully. As an example, the domain of the word training has expanded, that of education shrunk. Still, you get my point. You can see it today in the comparison implicit in the language VET or vocational education and training and the term higher education to describe two different education sectors.

So can you define higher education? Does it mean any more than the capacity to award a higher level tick, a tick recognised formally or, in some cases, though the market place?

The huge expansion of mass education has created a further, related, problem. In market terms, that expansion means that the value of a first degree in the market place is relatively about the same as the Higher School Certificate was first introduced in NSW. I was going to use the old five year secondary leaving certificate as an example, but that certificate actually opened up more opportunities than a Bachelors degree today.

Another very funny side effect of the associated rise of "professionalism" is that the higher education sector is actually training lower paid workers. Take as an example, the rise of the paramedic or, for that matter, the higher educationalisation of nursing.

I am not talking here about the standard of service, just relative pay. I have the strong impression that a nurse now relative to a qualified trades person is about the same. A primary school teacher is clearly worse off in relative terms, as is a university professor! So the nexus between participation in higher education and the income return is breaking down. 

Who is the customer?

This one is very messy. If we define the customer as the person who buys the service, then the Government is the dominant purchaser of higher education services in Australia at least. But it's not as clear cut as that. Indeed, you need a combined PhD in higher education funding, economics and financial analysis to understand just what happens. I struggle on the struggle with the detail and get confused. As a consequence, I am prone to error. 

To begin with, the Commonwealth Government has multiple and indeed conflicting roles:

  • It buys teaching services for domestic students. Part of those purchases are recovered through HECS (Higher Education Contribution Scheme) whose rules are set by one agency, the money collected by another. This funding comes with reporting requirements.
  • It provides certain assistance to students through the social welfare system. Here the amount paid is determined by general decisions on the level and conditions of welfare payments linked to age and family circumstances.
  • It regulates the sector. Part of this cost comes directly from the taxpayer, part comes indirectly via the proportion of the regulatory costs born by higher education students in terms of university direct costs. The higher the cost, the lower the amount of money from payments for teaching services available.  
  • It sees itself as the standards improver, using a combination of sticks (regulation, promotion of public measurement tools) and carrots (funding that universities can apply for) for standards improvement as defined in Canberra. Again, this imposes cost. Further, Universities aren't dumb.  They go for the cash, now and in the future. This twists university behaviour and increases the need for central managerial control within universities to ensure the university position in a complex world.
  • It funds research, but on increasingly more stringent terms and conditions. Here it encourages research whose outputs can be measured; it emphasises the need to get commercial partners to support research on industrial development; and it creates new structures such as cooperative research centres with time limited dollars attached. Again, universities aren't dumb. The best way to maximise is seen as central control and coordination. Big is beautiful in this area, The bigger you are, the more you can afford to invest in marketing and proposal writing, the easier it is to absorb the costs of failure.
  • It also imposes a variety of special requirements on universities to meet social and political needs.

Now if you think all this is complicated, consider this,

The higher education sector is more than just the universities. Other players are specialist medical colleges and the VET (Vocational and Technical Education sector) who are funded and regulated in different ways. Within specialist medical colleges, there has been an explosion in costs associated with Commonwealth Government intervention, some justified, some arguably not. Further, Commonwealth regulates dictate the barriers between sectors and especially higher education. The original simplicity associated with the idea of a qualifications framework has been lost.

Still with me? Well, it gets more confusing still. Faced with Government restrictions and controls, universities have been forced to seek new funding sources. Part of that has come from full fee paying overseas students, part from the provision of university services on a fee for service or joint contribution basis, part from alumni and benefactions. One visible outcome has been the visible mushrooming of new medical research institutes.

In all this, are students customers? Well, yes and no. Full fee paying students clearly are. The market for overseas students has become a major university driver. Domestic students? Well no, not really. They have some market power, but that's limited.

Universities are in a dilemma. They have to deliver in an increasingly cash constrained environment. They must meet all of the new requirements, while finding their own business development funds.  All this means that they have to lower costs, while still attracting students. This gives students some power, a power increased by recent Commonwealth Government changes to funding structures intended to increase the proportion of the Australian young people going to university. Here competition has expressed itself especially in marketing budgets.

Another factor now comes in, for students are their own worst enemies. For reasons that I will explore later, university students are very immobile. Unlike the US, the proportion who will move to go to a university of their choice is very small. They want to stay at home.

I saw this with my own girls who would not even consider the Australian National University despite its high global rankings, nor would they consider the University of New England despite the family connections. But you can also see it with the rankings provided in the Australian Good Universities Guide. If you  look here, you will see little correlation between student satisfaction ratings and student demand. An institution may have high student ratings measured by current students and yet fail to attract students.

There are very practical as well as cultural reasons for the immobility of the Australian young. I will address those next. For immediate purposes, it gives universities with large immediate catchments greater freedom to cut costs. Simply put, they can lower the standard of their offerings without affecting intakes. That's a pretty powerful market dynamic.

Is there any evidence that this has in fact happened? There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that suggests that this is so, but I am not aware of any hard data on the matter. What we can say with certainty is that the amount of available staff time per student is lower than in the past. Further, the time that is available is increasingly dominated by part time or casual staff. If you combine that with pattern of student complaints, there is at least indicative evidence of unsatisfactory if not falling standards.

Why won't students move?

I suggested that there were practical as well as cultural reasons for the immobility of the Australian young.

If you look at the data for enrolments in on-line or distance courses at any Australian institution, you will see a wide geographic spread of students. Clearly, students are mobile when they don't have to move! By contrast, internal student numbers are dominated by those coming from immediate catchment areas.

There are very few scholarships available today. The general financial support that is available through the welfare system does not cover costs, especially if the student wants to have any form of social life. So even full time students do at least some part time work, with those receiving support through the welfare system balancing this against the income rules; work too much and you lose your benefit for a period.  A large number also live at home.

If you are going to move away to study and do not have parental financial support, you have to fund additional living costs. Now another factor comes into play, the availability and stability of part time work. So in all this, why bother?

If going to one university compared to another actually made a significant subsequent employment difference, then a shift might be worthwhile. But with some exceptions, in a world of mass commodity bachelors degrees, there just isn't enough in it to make it worthwhile. Higher costs, no extra income? Why bother? But in the end, this may not matter much.

What on earth are MOOCs?

Higher education is as prone as any other sector to fall in love with technology. A year back, I started to hear excited conversations about the implications of MOOCs. Not wanting to appear ignorant, I had to look it up! When I did, I thought oh dear, here we go again!

MOOC stands for Massive open online course.  In simple terms, MOOCs are a type of online course aimed at large-scale participation and open access via the web. They are of concern to both universities and staff because they create a competitive threat. This series on The Conversation will give you a feel for the discussion.

Why did I say oh dear, here we go again? Well, it was partly because I have been through just too many crazes that failed to deliver beyond the wreckage left behind. In some cases now, this is getting close to bet your university stuff. But it's more because some of the conversations going on miss the point. To introduce this, my next question is who are the competitors? 

Who are the competitors?

I began this post with a brief discussion on what is higher education? There I posed this question: can you define higher education? Does it mean anymore than the capacity to award a higher level tick, a tick recognised formally or, in some cases, through the market place? I then asked the question: who are the customers? Part of my point there was to illustrate the complexity of the markets within which Australia’s universities operate. Each market has its own competitor mix.

In discussion now I want to focus on education and training services, the core business of most universities. We can look at these services in many ways. I have selected three, content, delivery mode and qualification, as entry points to the discussion on competition.

By content, I mean the material used in teaching. I accept that teaching is an old fashioned word in a world in which facilitation is all the rage. Perhaps I am old fashioned, but to my mind facilitation is a technique, part of the process of teaching.

Content is more than just words on paper. It depends on purpose and can include not just other forms of presentation, but also techniques and activities.

The earlier University of New England system of moral tutors seems quaint now. The reality is actually different, for those tutors actually had little to do with morals.

UNE’s early students came from a variety of backgrounds. For most, they were the first in their family to actually study at university. They came from country families who had little exposure to the broader world outside their immediate locality. The University saw its role in part as giving them the skills including social skills to be successful in the broader world they were to enter. Measured by later life performance, the results were quite outstanding.

I more or less accept that Australia can no longer afford such luxury. However, it illustrates my point that content is more than just words, more than the content narrowly defined, but a broader package.

When it comes to content more narrowly defined, Australia’s universities have no monopoly over content, nor is their content necessarily the best. In a world awash with content, every person or organisation with content is a potential competitor to Australia’s universities at the course level.

To be continued tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Train Reading - Ray Bass's Teachers College to University

I was going to start bringing up the next post in the current higher education series, but I don't have time this morning.

While writing the series, my train reading has been Ray Bass's Teachers College to University: Higher Education on the North Coast of NSW 1907-1992 (The University of New England - Northern Rivers 1992). In a way it's a dry old book, part compendium, likely to be of most interest to those from the North Coast or with some connection to Southern Cross University.  I bought it in Armidale on my last trip to add to my New England collection and to fill another gap in my ever evolving history of New England.

However, its also a very useful book, for it provides an on-ground picture of the events leading up to the Dawkins reforms and their immediate impacts written from the perspective of some occupying a senior role first in the Lismore Teachers College and then the Northern Rivers College of Advanced Education. Mathew Jordon's history of the University of New England, A spirit of True Learning, tells the story from the other side of the vast cultural and geographic divide that would finally make the networked University of New England the earliest and most spectacular failure of the change process.   

I will write a little more on Ray's book later, focusing on the things I learned. For the moment, I just note that the success or failure of change processes is determined not by the top down view from the board room, cabinet room or department, but by the way changes actually work themselves out on the ground. Unless you can establish a proper relationship (I call it point and counter point) between top and bottom your changes are likely to fail or at least have perverse results.

This holds as much in business as in public policy.    

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Fixing Australian higher education - problems with the horizontal slice

This post continues the discussion begun in Fixing Australian higher education - problems with the vertical slice.

If you accept the picture painted in my last post about Australia's current university sector as half way accurate, you have to ask how we got into this mess. How did we end up in a world where if Paul Frijters rough figures are correct, seventy per cent of each education dollar is actually consumed in running the total system?

Introducing the Dawkins Revolution

To understand this, we have to move right up the food chain to Canberra. Here our entry point is a well written piece by Dean Ashenden, Decline and fall?. The message in the piece is summarised in this way:

Twenty-five years ago, John Dawkins dramatically reshaped higher education. His critics still fail to distinguish the good from the bad in his reforms.

The piece is worth reading in full for its sets a context. I also happen to agree with a fair bit of what Dean says. But I would also argue that it suffers from a lack of context. It explains why many of the criticisms of Mr Dawkin's reforms are unfair, but doesn't help us a great deal in understanding the mess I described in my last post, nor does it help us in understanding what might be done to fix things.

Wikipedia describes the changes introduced by Mr Dawkins in higher education as the Dawkins Revolution.

That term is misleading, really coined by academics concerned with their own domain, by commenters interested in the sector. It was a revolution, but not in the way perceived by those focused on the higher education vertical slice. It was a revolution driven by the need for structural change in the Australian economy. It was revolution influenced by changes taking place in broader perceptions of public administration and public policy and by a multiplicity of competing policy objectives. It was a revolution twisted by previous official thought and by existing agendas. It was profoundly influential, but in the end it failed, giving us the complex vertical mess I described in my last post.

This post explores the horizontal mess, the reasons for failure. I accept that it is partial. Further, I just don't have time to document all this. I stand ready to be corrected. I accept that I am grossly simplifying.

Threads in Canberra Thought

In 1983 Australia faced a problem. Previous policies controlling imports through a mix of tariffs and import controls had created a dual economy, an inward looking manufacturing sector focused on a small domestic market place along with an export economy based on primary products including minerals. This was unsustainable, but how to change?

In the labour market, the award system that grew out of the original Deakenite social contract had, like the tariff system, proliferated into a crazy patchwork series of occupational activities defined in awards, each requiring its own trade tick. Again, this had to change.

The Dawkins revolution in education and training actually began with the economic need for change in the work place. Added to that was the growing perception that we must have more skilled people. Unions and workers trading off rights needed something in return. They needed greater opportunities, they needed more flexibility. They needed more training.

The form the revolution took was influenced by three further general streams in thought.

One was the desire for industrial development, for the development of new industries, At official level, there was general agreement about the need for structural change, including the need to do away with the crazy patchwork quilt of industry protection measures. There was disagreement about the approach that should be adopted, but all wanted to use the measures available to achieve their objectives.

A second stream was the emergence of new forms of management through centred on concepts such as measurement, standards, continuous improvement, quality improvement, input-output , performance measurement, efficiency and effectiveness  and, later, risk management. This stream centred on the simple concept that performance could be improved if activities were defined, grouped and measured against agreed standards or performance targets,

The third stream has been characterised as neo-classical economics. The role of the market was central to this stream.  However, it was more than that, for the ideas became overlaid with a set of very particular models whose genesis lay in the stagflation of the 1970s and which reached their full flowering in New Zealand with Roger Douglas.

While market focused, these models were actually independent of some of the neo-classical models. To illustrate, the question of the relative size of government is fundamentally different from the best way of delivering government services and of making them properly accountable. However, this stream gave us concepts such as purchaser-provider models and the use of market proxies.

These different streams came together in the development of policy towards Australia's higher education sector. Here they interacted with another variable, bureaucratic thought, the long trail of past decisions and processes that affect current decisions. These ensured that  the reforms would take a particular form.

To illustrate all this, I return to the history of higher education in Australia. 

Australian Higher Education on the Eve of Revolution

Constitutionally, education is a state responsibility. For the first half of the twentieth century, the education system was structured into:

  • primary and secondary schools, with a large public school system along with a smaller non-government sector dominated in student numbers by the large Catholic school system. The states funded public schools, while the non-government sector was funded through fees or other forms of private fund raising.  
  • technical education was provided by state funded technical colleges. There was a close nexus between the colleges, trade training and the industrial relations system.
  • teacher training was provided through state controlled and funded teachers colleges.
  • university education was provided by a relatively small number of public universities established under state acts. Their funding came in part from fees, in part from state grants, in part from benefactions. The universities did provide some vocational education in areas such as medicine, law, or teaching, but their core focus was discipline based.
  • professional education in areas such as accountancy, law or medical specialities was controlled by and to a varying degree delivered through professional bodies. In medicine, for example, the universities provided entry level qualifications, but training beyond that point was controlled by specialist colleges. In accountancy, training was completely controlled by the professional bodies.
  • Nurse education was on the job and provided via the public hospital system.
  • Finally, there were a raft of private providers in areas such as business studies or secretarial  providing training that while not officially credentialed was recognised by employers.

I recognise that this must seem a bit eye-glazing, but I wanted to illustrate the complexity of the education and training environment.

During the 1950s, the system came under great strain. Industrialisation during the Second World War increased the demand on technical education. The post war baby boom in combination with mass migration placed huge demands on the school system. State teacher's colleges struggled to provide the required number of teachers. More students were demanding entry to universities.

The Commonwealth had resisted any form of on-going support for education. However, the Menzie's Government  did move to provide financial support for universities. By 1957, Commonwealth grants were providing 29.2 per cent of university income, state grants 50.3 per cent.

In 1964-1965, the Martin Committee recommended the creation of a new type of tertiary college that would award qualifications at diploma level. The aim was to meet the need for vocational education, to bridge the gap between the technical education and university systems. The end result was the creation of Colleges of Advanced Education based on the existing teachers colleges and some of the autonomous technical colleges. In 1969, the new system was allowed to award a hierarchy of qualifications, from diplomas through to Bachelor degrees. In 1971, the Colleges were allowed to award Masters degrees.

The two sectors were administered very differently.

The university sector was funded via block grants. Universities were self-accrediting, defining their own offerings, making their own decisions on expenditure. By contrast, college offerings had first to be individually approved at state level before submission to Canberra for funding approval.

In July 1987, John Dawkins became Minister for Employment, Education and Training, the first time these various functions had been combined in a single department. By then, the good folk in the previous education department faced a number of problems that they had been trying to address for the best part of a decade.

To begin with, the decision of the Whitlam Government to abolish university fees from 1 January 1974 had made the higher education sector totally dependent on Government grants while increasing the cost to the budget. That position was unsustainable. Then there were problems with the management of a dual system of universities and colleges of advanced education funded in different ways.

The colleges were meant to be a separate vocational focused stream. By 1987, they were behaving more and more like universities. Lower level courses were being dropped in favour of higher level offerings, they were undertaking research, while staff and students were agitating for comparable treatment.

There were major cultural differences between the two sectors. The collapse in demand for teachers that had formed the bedrock of many CAEs, the need to compete for the funding of specific course offerings, created a far more entrepreneurial culture as colleges sought new offerings and new students.

This was aided by  credentialism, the increasing demand for longer and more formal qualifications for specific occupations. In teaching, the two year primary qualification was replaced by a three year degree. In nursing, training moved from on-the-job in hospitals to more formal degree training. As part of this,  the costs of training shifted from the states to the commonwealth. The  colleges were best equipped to gain from these changes. As they responded, they shrank the space previously occupied by other parts of the education system.

Faced with rising costs, Commonwealth officials in 1981 and 1982 had tried to force the amalgamation of smaller colleges of advanced education to capture perceived economies of scale. There were some mergers, but others were successfully resisted.

I have to declare a bias here.

In 1982 I had taken leave from the Commonwealth Public Service to work on my PhD thesis at the University of New England. While in Armidale, I combined with the Peter Monley to organise protest against the proposed forced merger of the Armidale College of Advanced Education and the University of New England. Peter was then a councillor from Dumaresq Shire, the shire surrounding Armidale. Peter worked the local government side, while I handled the university, strongly supported by the then VC. The result was a major demonstration that helped block the merger, if only for a time.

John Dawkins arrival created an opportunity for officials to bring about changes that they had wanted. However, the exact form of those changes would be influenced by the other forces described earlier.

The Dawkins Higher Education Reforms

There were two key elements to the Dawkins revolution.

The first was the replacement of what was known as the binary system - universities plus colleges of advanced education - by what was called the Unified National System. The second was effective re-introduction of university fees via HECS, the Higher Education Contributions Scheme.

Under the Unified National System, the distinction between universities and colleges was abolished. Institutions had to apply to join the unified national system. Those who did not would be funded on a contract basis for teaching purposes only. The approach adopted was actually quite prescriptive at a number of levels.

To begin with, benchmarks were established based on perceived economies of scale. A three tier system was created:

  • You needed to have a minimum of 2000 EFTSUs (Equivalent Full Time Student Units) to gain recognition. One third of colleges fell below this benchmark. They were advised to merge or form a working relationship with a larger institution.
  • The prerequisite from a funding perspective to support a broad teaching profile with some specialised research was a minimum sustainable load of 5000 EFTSUs.
  • For a relatively comprehensive in teaching and with the resources required to undertake research across a significant proportion of its educational profile, a minimum sustainable load of 8000 EFTSUs was required.

The problem with this approach lay in the lack of variety and flexibility. It was a one size fits all. A smaller institution may have higher measured administrative costs, but still offer a more flexible and successful student experience. We can see this in the later re-emergence of smaller providers offering university level qualifications. Again, I have to admit my biases, for it was my own university, the University of New England, that provided the most spectacular example of merger failure.  

Institutions were also required to enter into new funding arrangements centred on its educational profile. The profile had to identify roles and mission and set out what the institution intended to do. This would then be used as a base for a contract negotiated with the government that specified:

  • the level of funding available from the Commonwealth to achieve its chosen academic goals
  • the ability of the institution to meet the higher education needs of its community
  • and the institution's contribution to national priorities identified by the Commonwealth.

Within the bounds of the contact, universities had freedom to allocate funds. Further, they were not precluded from doing other things, but only if they could find the resources from non-Commonwealth sources.

This approach was, in fact, an example of the emerging purchaser-provider model. It imposed a reporting load on universities since they had to report on performance. Importantly, it made Commonwealth priorities central to future funding.

The year before, John Button's information Industry Statement had for the first time included tied funding for specific places in IT. The Education Department officials had resisted this because they thought that universities should be able to respond to student demand. Now Pandora's Box was opened, for university funding was becoming tied to very specific Commonwealth objectives.

The re-introduction of university fees via HECS created another set of dynamics. This wasn't really a fee system at all. The Commonwealth set the nominal fee level: part of this was then recovered by students via HECS, the balance paid by the Government. It was, in fact, a cost recovery measure that bore no relationship to any market dynamics. With Government resources constrained, there was constant downward pressure on real university funding.

Universities responded by greatly increasing staff-student ratios and through expansion of activities in areas where they could make money. This included extension of commercial training activities and especially expansion of marketing activities targeting overseas students where full fees could be charged. There were some disastrous failures, but the end result was a huge expansion in overseas student numbers.  

Changes in Vocational Education

The changes taking place in the university sector were linked to changes taking place in technical education. These changes were very important, for the ideas involved and the form they took in implementation created many complexities that affected the entire education sector.

Despite all the history, this is not a history piece. My aim is to paint a picture of the forces in play that created today's complex mess.

Earlier, I spoke of the need for workplace reform. Australia needed a more flexible workforce, and that required the break-down of the complex workplace system of awards that, among other things, linked particular activities to particular tickets regardless of actual skills or workplace circumstances. There were also concerns about the availability of skilled workers, concerns that had been highlighted during the previous mining boom by the presence of skills shortages. By the time the system responded via increased numbers, the boom was over. Now Australia had unemployed skilled workers.

The core concepts in the system that now evolved were simple enough. It was their application that was complicated!

There were six key concepts:

  • standards. A standard is simply a defined measure. 
  • competence or competencies.  Competence is the capacity to do. Each activity requires particular knowledge and skills. However, whether you are an electrician or a doctor, you don't use all your knowledge and skills in carrying out individual task, just those relevant to the task in question. Breaking skills up into smaller blocks relevant to the task in question opened the possibility of breaking down rigid occupational barriers, allowing people to do specific things even though they didn't have the broader qualification.
  • recognition. If people are going to carry out activities including those within broader professional or trades domains, you need a system for assessing and recognising their particular skill sets.
  • recognition of prior learning. People learn by doing. In the workplace, probably 90% of skills acquisition actually comes from on-the-job. In credential or standard ticket based systems, there may be no way of recognising this. But if a person can do, why shouldn't that be recognised?
  • articulation. If you group knowledge and skills by levels, if you create a qualifications standards based framework that people can access via any mechanism they choose and achieve recognition, then you break down divides and silos and open up multiple learning paths.         
  • quality assurance. If you are going to do all this, you need a system for checking. It's not important how people learn to do. The critical thing is that they can do.

All this was very exciting. It opened up the possibility of a far more flexible and effective education and training system that individuals could access in multiple ways. The reality was a little different.

To work, the new approach required:

  • governments to carefully distinguish between their roles as purchasers and regulators.
  • a focus on the assessment of outputs, not on inputs.
  • the lightest possible hand in regulating the system, recognising that the higher compliance costs were, the more difficult it would be to achieve real change.

None of this happened. Instead, we got the worst of all possible worlds. In crude terms, a system designed to increase flexibility became a new way of asserting control. Key weaknesses included:

  • a regulatory system targeting inputs as well as outputs.
  • an incredibly complex process for the assessment and recognition of competencies.
  • a growing failure to recognise the difference between education and training, with training models applied regardless.
  • maintenance of existing regulatory barriers, slowing structural adjustment.
  • misapplication of quality management and measurement based approaches, creating growing layers of measurement and reporting.

Markets in Higher Education

From a higher education perspective, one of the biggest failures of all lay in the failure to understand the complex market dynamics now being created. I will discuss this in my next post.     

Monday, November 26, 2012

Fixing Australian higher education - problems with the vertical slice

Over on Club Troppo, Paul Frijters has continued the discussion I referred to in my post Sunday Essay - Frijters on the need for university reform. Reading the comments, it is remarkable how many different issues were raised. In this post, I want to disentangle some of those a little. In doing so, I am taking something I wrote in a comment as an entry point:

Paul, very briefly because I have people coming for lunch. You have to start at the top of the food chain and work down., Unless the Government and its officials are prepared to change their approach, nothing else will change. And its very difficult to do this because the operating assumptions built into the approach are shared across the Government system at all levels. Our present systems of public administration are the horizontal slice. The complex higher education chain the vertical slice.

To help guide you as to the problems faced in bringing about change, I want to pose a simple question. Put aside issues about the role of universities, the varying quality of courses etc. If, as Paul suggested, the university coal face only gets 28 cents in the dollar for every dollar appropriated for higher education by the Australian parliament, how do you turn that around. Put very simply, how might you increase the coal face proportion by even ten cents in the dollar?

To consider this, let's begin with the vertical slice. The material that follows is generalised and should not be read as applying to any one institution. It is a collage.

Say that you are a lowly staff academic staff member, a tutor, lecturer or senior lecturer. Your traditional role is to teach while also doing some research. You are also an enthusiastic staff member who wants to promote interest in your discipline, spend time with students, build community links, create new initiatives that you hope will have longer term paybacks.

Sitting in front of the computer in your office, a constant series of email messages roll across your screen.

Many are round-robin notices, advising you of the latest changes to OH&S, a new approach to EEO, a planning session that you are expected to go to, an exciting new university initiative that will require redistribution of cash to support it. Other emails come from students who now seem to expect 24 hour responses. The University has just introduced a new computer system that doesn't quite work yet, You had to allocate time to go to training, you think that it will be a good thing, but meantime you stand by the photo copier printing 6oo marking sheets.

The head of department is pressing you for that statistical report required as part of Canberra's reporting requirements. You are meant to be preparing that grant application, you have just been told that if you cannot increase your citation score your contract may not be extended under the university's new reporting rules, but you don't have time.

And that small initiative, that centre that you got off the ground with a few of your dedicated colleagues? The school head was a apologetic. Yes, it helps the community, it brings students, it's good for the university's reputation in your area, but it's just too niche. We have to focus on the big picture, on those things that will deliver the greatest return to the university in dollar terms. We can't afford the resources that you need for the next stage. We all have to make sacrifices.      

Looking out your window, you wonder what all those university bureaucrats do. Looking up through the multiplicity of reporting layers to the distant world of Canberra, you wonder if they realise what they are doing.

The head of school is actually wondering the same thing. He didn't like having to say the things he did to you. The school is not sexy, but it offers courses that students want to do. He has just been to a presentation by the VC and Deputy VC (Strategy and Business Development) on the university's new marketing strategy.

They were excited: the new logo and marketing material were working well; their targeted marketing strategy selling into a particular area was increasing student numbers; and the new big centres that formed the base of the university's expansion plans was getting off the ground. They would need to cut some existing expenditure to fund all this. People in some existing areas would need to squeeze spend per student, to find new efficiencies. They had drawn up a priority list.

The head of school was upset. He had to tell people again to do more with less, that some of the things that they had underway would have to slow or even stop, that filling of certain positions would have to be delayed. He was also worried about student reactions.

"It's ludicrous, gross, disgusting", one student from another school had told him. "X", naming a tutor," hadn't prepared. "They are only interested in international students because of the money. They make things easy for them, but ignore us." The head of school worried about his own position and that of the university. So far the student satisfaction survey results were holding up for his school, but they were dropping elsewhere. He was also worried about rumours around the campus that suggested that there had been some form of corruption in marking to try to ensure student numbers.

He had a very personal gripe, too. Professor Y, the head of one of the new centres, was a superb marketer. He had built a large postgraduate school from industry contributions. Measured by patents, a new performance measure, Professor Y had done very well. Yet none of those patents had translated into useful results. The head of the university commercialisation company had actually complained about this. The head of school wondered how long Professor Y would be with them. It must be time for him to jumps soon.

The head of marketing was happy with the meeting the head of school had attended. He was delivering under his performance contract. He had carefully worked out a positioning strategy taking into account all the competitive groupings in higher education. His approach was working. He did wonder about the academics, however. He had come in from outside. Didn't staff realise that the university was a business, that they had to grow?

His happiness was not shared by the frustrated head of reporting in the Deputy VC's office. Getting academics to report was like herding cats. Every one left it to the last minute. Didn't they realise that they must report to Canberra, that their cash depended on it? They had to report and report. His days were filled with meetings on statistical collections, standards, dealing with public servants at state and federal level. 

The Deputy VC (Strategy and Business Development) wasn't happy either. The latest shifts at the margin in Canberra policy disadvantaged the university, working against initiatives based on previous policies. It was late and he should be home. Sighing, he picked up the phone to call his counterpart in another university that belonged to the same lobby group as his. Had they worked out an approach?

In Canberra, the officials were also discomforted. Presently over-worked because of the things they had to do, the range of new initiatives, they were also worried about the growing gap between the statistical data and the performance targets set.

The University sector was being difficult. Slow to report. It all took just so much time.

Then they were being lobbied by private providers, and had to deal with possible changes in the vocational education and training sector. After taking out those involved in statistics and administration of current arrangements, excluding more senior staff involved in constant strategy meetings, the number of people available to actually do development work was very small, Further, their time was constantly tied up in preparing briefings so that people could consider making decisions. Not that they did! And when they did it was so often high level stuff, remote from immediate concerns or needs.

I could go on almost ad-infinitum, but I am setting the scene. Looking at the vertical slice in higher education from the bottom up, we have a complex chain whose very complexity has stripped away many of the opportunities for real change. I know that what I am saying must sound absurd. Yet it's the reality. That is what's actually happening.

In my next post, I will look at the horizontal slice, with the Dawkins' reforms as my entry point.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sunday Essay - Frijters on the need for university reform

Last Tuesday I mentioned Paul Frijters' post The university coalface gets 28 cents in the dollar. He has continued his discussion on university reform in University reform, part I: what are the options? and then University reforms, part II: the barriers, with more to come. The series is worth following.

I have written a fair bit on this topic myself. To my mind, the key need is simplification. Current measurement standards based approaches don't work, nor does the corporatist model. It's all just so 1980s! Most people know this, yet the standard answer (pun intentional) is more of the same.

At present, we have an approach that says that we will do this to achieve this outcome. We will then report on that outcome. It sounds so sensible!

No one asks an alternative question. What will happen if we don't do this or stop doing this?  In most cases the answer is diddly squat.

It would also be helpful if people had an understanding of systems based approaches. In simple terms, a system is a set of connected modules that interact. The more complex systems become, the greater the scope for systemic failure. In administrative terms, higher education has become an ever more complex system, one that just doesn't work very well.

In the military world, the three Cs are important - command, control and communication. In the messy world of the battle field, you simply cannot control what is happening. You cannot micro-manage. People have to make decisions on the spot. Yet you still need a system that will maintain coordination, lines of command, allow the total army to move. So there is a constant conflict between individual or unit responsibility and central needs.

The more tightly you try to control things, the less scope there is for individual autonomy. Yet change, success, depends upon individual action. That's true on the battle field. It's just as true in other areas.

A central principle of good government or management is that responsibility should be pushed to the lowest possible level. Australia's present system of higher education breaches that principle. It has become command and control focused to the point that there is no individual autonomy. More and more time has to be spent navigating the system, less and less time is available for real delivery.

We are all influenced by our personal experiences. At a purely personal level, the sometimes venom in my attacks comes from my experiences and those of people I know.

Leaving aside grand visions, it has become harder and harder to actually do things, to achieve the small. And yet, final results for the whole system actually depend on the small.