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.


Legal Eagle said...

I am enjoying this, Jim. Although I am having flashbacks about photocopying 600 feedback forms and doing 500 student references. But I do it because I care about my students.

Jim Belshaw said...

I thought that you might enjoy it, LE! Part of the amalgam comes from you!

Paul F thought that I caught the bustle pretty accurately. As I said in a comment there, now I have to make the horizontal slice real. That's harder.

Winton Bates said...

I haven't been following the discussion, but it suggests to me that there may be potential to fund the national disability scheme from savings in the higher education budget - and still leave higher education in better shape than at present!

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

Maybe 30 years ago, at Albion Park on the NSW South Coast, there were 260 dairy farms, presumably supporting 260 families. Today there are two. And a2 Milk, which is all the rage, because it is 'natural', sells for $4 plus, with the actual producer receiving about 20 cents per litre.

So if your uni guys are actually getting 25 cents in the dollar, they are on a pretty good wicket, methinks.

But I share your pain, and you are telling it well.


Evan said...

Love this!

Have you read Paul Goodman's The Community of Scholars? An oldie but a goodie.

Rod said...

I don't doubt the accuracy and sentiment of your post overall and I can vouch for one small aspect as being absolutely true. The difficulties with electronic 24hr contact between students and staff.

Just last week I was talking with a good friend who is an academic at a local university. He was lamenting that several of his undergraduate? students created an excessive and unrealistic expectation of reliance on staff. For example, one studnet had a problem with something and emailed my friend on Friday afternoon, re-emailed during the weekend asking whether he had received the email and then first thing on monday asking whether her problem had been solved yet. When my friend said that he had not even had the chance to look at her emails she became abusive!

My poor academic friend doesn't seem to get a weekend, let alone time to do much original research. Many academics are often accused of using their post graduate students to do their research for them. I think I can see why this is actually an attractive time saving option!

Jim Belshaw said...

Naughty suggestion, Winton, it would fit with current practice. Quarantine all costs directly associated with teaching or research. Then extract an efficiency dividend equal to 25% of the rest!

Jim Belshaw said...

I haven't read the book, Evan. Another gap in my education!

Jim Belshaw said...

I am reading a history of that institution at present, Rod. But you story certainly illustrates my point!