Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Is it too late to save Australia's universities?

This post is a diatribe. I make no apologies for that. It bears upon something that I am quite passionate about.

As an entry point, I want to use a comment I received on a post, Ironies in Australian higher education standards, Anon wrote:

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

I haven't tried to edit anon's comment, just let them stand, for they provide a context for the things I have been trying to write about.

I have seen my first university, the one I love most because I was there, because of it's past standards, because of our family commitment to the place, almost destroyed. I have seen my second university drift down the corporate path, seeking a status that it actually had without seeing it. I have seen my wife fight for building funding at another university, suffering delay after delay even though every one of the ever changing decision makers came to see the plans as a good thing.

I have seen my daughters receive what I perceive to be a sub-standard education at three of Australia's leading universities. They don't see it. They see my comments as an attack. But they actually have no comprehension of the depth of the education I received as the University of New England. How could they? It's no longer available.

I have watched as the blogging world I inhabit slowly coalesces around the idea of the collapse of Australian university standards. Sure we chattering classes don't have much individual influence. But the cumulative effects are substantial.

The things that the Australian government is doing in higher education policy don't matter a damn.

There is not one thing in current policy that will affect the malaise. Indeed, current policy is part of the malaise. I do not expect my grandchildren, I do hope that I will see them, to have a better university education than my daughters. They won't My best hope is that they might have an okay education.

And that really suns it all up. After all the focus on standards in current policy, the best that I can hope for is an okay education. And they won't even know it.

Where do we do to next?


Winton Bates said...

The problem is not just in Australia, is it? The incentive systems in universities in other countries also seem to encourage a proliferation of second rate articles in second rate journals.

Perhaps the problem will eventually self-correct. I would have thought that there is still an incentive for universities to enhance their reputations by attracting the best talent available.

Evan said...

Start the alternative. See Goodman's The Community of Scholars

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Winton. No, it's not just an Australian problem. And, yes, there is still an incentive to attract the best talent, but the definitions of "best talent" have changed as have the weightings. This is worth a post, I think, to try to explain.

Evan, thank's for the reference.

Chris Gilbey said...

Jim. I understand that you see that there is a problem, but I didn't see any solution suggested here.

The problem is actually systemic. It comes from needing to deliver ROI where there is a belief that return should be financial rather than the elevation of the standards of intellectual discourse in the community. This is all about the move from business being profit driven into society being profit driven.

I think that there are moves from some incoming VC's to change the picture, but I sense that a lot of the incumbent professional academics concerned with admin quite like the system as it has become. They maintain the status quo and get a fat cheque at the end of the month for ever....

Meanwhile they have created (courtesy too of the way that government funding is apportioned) a system in which risk is avoided, graduates receive qualifications but not skills, and very little can get into the market because the academics don't understand that its entrepreneurs that make things happen....

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Chis. Nice to hear from a blast from my past!

I agree that I wasn't suggesting solutions, but they come back to your points. If the rules of the game won't let you win, change the game.

Learn to say no. Articulate and sell new positions. Focus not on Government and its policies but students, concepts of excellence as you define it,on role and ideas.

Challenge the status quo by presenting an alternative vision.

Anonymous said...

Jim, I thought of your current 'reflections' when I read this article:

To quote the bit which stands out:

The prompt for all this was the CPA's 125th anniversary but the real reason, Mr Malley freely admits, was to contrast the time that produced Armstrong and NASA's grand ambition with the diminished aspirations of the present day.

''This really was intended as a bit of a shock moment to prompt us to reconsider our lack of leadership in the modern era,'' Mr Malley says. ''We did things in 1969 because we wanted to do them. Today, we've got … risk managers who are paid to tell us why we can't do them.''

I haven't watched the videos as yet - but I intend to.


Evan said...

Effort, change and real achievement turned up in my blog reader feed but I can't find it on your blog.

I too am in some ways a conservative radical. Eg. valuing the individual over social institutions (judging the value of institutions by their impact on individuals) used to be the critique of the collectivist tendencies of the extreme right and left.

Jim Belshaw said...

Nice story, kvd, and the point is well take.

Evan, while I knew that those with feeds would have picked the post up, I still took it down at least pro tem because I felt that it fell far too much in the ponderous pontificator class. I have done a bit of that lately.

Thinking about your second point, I actually have a problem with the collectivist/individualistic duality that you have captured. Is the person who is often supportive of collective approaches but judges results by individual impacts a collectivist or an individualist?