Sunday, March 01, 2015

Sunday Essay - New England historiography and the decline of Australia's universities

In his latest post on family history, Neil’s personal decades 30: Roy Christison 1924, Neil managed to find  A Singleton Argus story from 7 August 1924 linking our respective pasts.
On Tuesday night in the Methodist Hall a public debate was held between the W.E.A.. and the R.S. and S.I.L. In the absence of the Mayor, Mr J. Ogilvy presided, Rev. D. Weatherall, who led the W.E.A. team, moved “That the people of Singleton should support the New State Movement.”
Neil's grandfather, R H Christison, was one of the WEA speakers arguing in favour of self-government. Although not mentioned in the newspaper piece, the debate took place against a backdrop of the Cohen Royal Commission inquiry into new states which had been conducting public hearings across NSW.  For those who want a little more background on all this, you can find it here. I have yet to add the later columns in the series.

There is another connection as well with Neil's story, for my family was also involved with the WEA, especially in New Zealand.

Last Sunday's Essay was Sunday Essay – musings on the rise and fall of New England historiographyIn discussion, Evan and I were talking about institutional influences. In this context, I want to quote one paragraph from my New England  historiography post: 
In the New England case, New England historiography is important because it arose in a context where local elites had sufficient power to create institutional structures that, for a period, could survive despite their isolation from the dominant structures. That isolation was both the reason for their creation and the driver in terms of subsequent focus. As the New England power structures declined in importance, as their ability to assert the separate case declined, so did New England historiography decline. Today it is a shadow of itself.
Talking to a friend about all this, I said that I regarded my historical writing as in some way akin to an archaeological rescue did. A new building is to be constructed, so archaeologists are commissioned to do a dig to record that which might, often will be, destroyed by a new building. In some ways, that's the position I find myself in with New England history..

My current series of columns in the Armidale Express traces the rise and fall of New England historiography. Without repeating the whole story, New England historical writing was affected by broader trends such as the interest in Australian history at the end of the nineteenth century as well as the rise of the museum movement. However, it took particular local form as a consequence of the fight for Northern self-government.

In this context, the establishment in 1928 of the Armidale Teachers' College and then the University College in 1938 were critical because they created institutional structures with a particular Northern focus including local and regional history. From their establishment, came historical writing first by academics and then by students in Litt B, Honours, Masters and PHD theses. This then laid the basis for books. It also created an interest in family and local history.

By 1981, you had two very different but complimentary institutional focuses.The TC now the Armidale College of Advance Education had a powerful local history school, while the University had a broader focus, if still including a powerful New England element. From the mid 1970, there was a publishing explosion by local writers, students and academics. Their books sit on my shelves now (few are on-line or in print) and are critical to to the work I do. Then it all collapsed.

Central to that collapse was the forced merger of the ACAE, the Northern Rivers College of Advanced Education and UNE as part of the Dawkins reforms of higher education. Dictated by the demands of efficiency and effectiveness in the name of national improvement, the reforms led to the collapse of New England historiography. There was no real place then or now for such a limited focus. Today, fewer thesis are completed in history in general, in Northern history in particular, than were completed in the 1960s.

Does this matter?  I think that it does. We live in an age of universals, of national KPIs concerned with some concept of improved national performance. There is no real scope for variety in such a world, especially when you shift focus to the local and the regional.

I don't really care how many Australian universities make to top 100 in global rankings. I don't see this as relevant except in narrowly defined marketing terms. I do care when the effect of the process is to damage teaching or, especially, research in the areas in which I have very particular interests.

Now let me really stick my neck out.

I know of no evidence that shows that that the standard of teaching in Australian universities is better today than it was in the 1960s. I know of no evidence that shows that it has improved over the last twenty years despite the ever-growing emphasis on standards or quality improvement, although compliance costs have clearly risen. I know of no evidence to show that the contribution of Australian universities to local or indeed global intellectual life is higher now that it was fifty or even ninety years ago. Indeed, I would argue the opposite.

So in considering my own interest, the decline of New England historiography, I see this  as part of a broader pattern. I stand to be corrected, of course. Perhaps I'm just an old troglodyte, pining for the old age of universities for the elites. I think not, but tell me why I am wrong.

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2 tanners said...

You've stuck your neck out jim, but I'm not going to chop it off. A little preparatory shave might be in order however. I have absolutely no knowledge of teaching standards in universities and am arguing by inductive reasoning only. However, my son recently completed high school. Although not the best of students, I firmly believe that his course was more difficult than my own and that therefore uni will also need to be more difficult to keep up.

To all: my reasoning has obvious flaws, but match my observations. I'd rather discuss the latter.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's an interesting point, 2T.

My daughters are older than your son. There was more content in their school courses, they had many more experience opportunities than I did. Arguably, it was more difficult. But with narrower scope, I think that certain aspects I read more deeply and more complexy than they did. But that's a matter of judgement.

In this context, I remember coming back from a school drama performance talking to eldest about what she was trying to achieve as producer. Her level of knowledge and sophistication was staggering.

University? It's bitsy now. Youngest went to Macquarie and focued on ancient history. I thought that her experiences were equivalent to mine. Eldest went first to UTS and then UNSW. I thought that her courses were bitsy. High on content, high on measurable exercises, but low on reflection.

I accept that it's difficult to measure. The role of a university education is different now. Still, with all the focus on measurement, I remain of the view that one cannot identify any real improvements.

Rod said...

"I know of no evidence that shows that that the standard of teaching in Australian universities is better today than it was in the 1960s. I know of no evidence that shows that it has improved over the last twenty years despite the ever-growing emphasis on standards or quality improvement, although compliance costs have clearly risen... Indeed, I would argue the opposite."

I don't think telling the truth is sticking your neck out. This comment I feel is quite close to the truth but it could be argued a different way. Indeed, I think it is argued a different way.

If education includes training then you are wrong. Training of 'students' in universities is much better now than it ever has been... educating students (in the sense that it was education in yesteryear) is extremely poor and is getting even poorer.

It is very hard to measure the ability for people to interpret, problem solve and adapt. It is easy to demonstrate that a nursing student has had 200 hours of hospital experience and knows what a bed pan is.

Evan said...

I think you're right.

Has anyone written the history of the Dawkins devastation of Uni's do you know?

Evan said...

From the numbers of assignments in similar subjects I think the workload at Uni has increased. I think this is probably all to the bad.

Evan said...

Also, what Rod said.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi all.

Evan first. There was one book on the Dawkins changes written to mark the 25th anniversary. I haven't read it Gwilym Croucher, Julie Wells, Simon Marginson, Andrew Norton,The Dawkins Revolution: 25 Years On.

The blurb says:

"John Dawkins was Australia's most influential higher education minister. He turned colleges into universities, free education into HECS, elite education into mass education, a local focus into an international outlook, vice - chancellors into CEOs, and most academics into both teachers and researchers. The publication of this volume marks the twenty - fifth anniversary of the revolution that John Dawkins started, creating what became known as the Unified National System of higher education. While John Dawkins' reforms were and often remain controversial, they have had a lasting impact on the shape of university education in Australia. This edited collection of research papers, histories and personal accounts from key players analyses the antecedents, details and legacy of this remarkable period in higher education policy in Australia."

So a pro-perspective.

Jim Belshaw said...

Continuing my comment, I take your distinction, Rod. The explosion in credentialism, the rise of different technologies, the expansion of knowledge in particular areas, has transformed the education and training landscape. Add to this associated institutional changes.

Take teaching. It used to be two years for a primary teacher. A secondary teacher did a minimum three year standard university subject course and then a Dip Ed ad-on. Many then did later formal study.

Since then course lengths have increased greatly, there is more focus on educational theory, the curricula has changed greatly. Teachers simply have to teach more stuff.

And quality? Do we have better teachers? I don't know. My gut judgement is yes and no. The expansion in content in schools means that teachers require more time to acquire knowledge. They also have more rules and regulations to learn. That doesn't make them better teachers.

I find it hard to believe that the greater focus on theory hasn't had some positive results, but I think that that's been diminishing for a long time.

I suspect now that we are way past the point of positive returns from change or extra effort. We are just drowning in extra red tape.

Evan said...

Thanks Jim.

Dr Purva Pius said...
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