Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Are Australian universities just not good enough?

The reserved and mild-mannered American Canadian law Professor James Allan, who works at an under-performing Australian university, has recently written a long tirade against the bureaucratisation of higher education in Australia.

While it contains a few home truths which need public acknowledgement - like the centralisation of decision-making and the power of university executives to make inappropriate rules, and also set their own pay - it also misses important context, and offers personal biases and anecdotes instead evidence and constructive suggestions for improvements.

I want to respond here to that article. First let me attempt to summarise Allan’s points about what is wrong with Australian universities.
  • University administrators seem to value research grants as outputs rather than inputs
  • Bureaucratic decisions at universities are quite centralised
  • Students work and study, meaning they want lectures recorded and don’t want to do extra reading
  • Students don’t travel to other cities to study
  • University ranking tables are a sham, and Australian universities are not performing as well as these tables make out
However Allan doesn’t actually explain what a suitable output performance measure should be for a university. The most we get is this
In Canadian law schools (and US ones, and UK ones) you are expected to be working on your degree full-time. You are expected to do lots of reading. You are expected to think. You are expected to pursue things on your own. You are not expected to schedule classes all on two days of the week so you can work the other three. Or tell your professor that you can’t do something because it conflicts with work. Or be so tired that you do as little reading as you can get away with. 
Yet that is now standard practice in Australia. I can still, just, get away with refusing to record any of my lectures and so insist that students come (or not, since as adults it is up to them, but if not they are on their own). But the university administration detests that position and is making it harder and harder to take. As I came to Australia already with a chair I can ignore the students who get infuriated about this practice of mine in their course evaluations. But no junior academic wanting to be promoted can do so. It is no exaggeration to say that the incentives are slanted heavily in favour of caving in, of spoon-feeding students, of recording all lectures for viewing from home (with much reduced class attendance as a result)—anything to facilitate the job commitment of the supposedly full-time undergraduate. 
The flip-side of this situation is that the demands on students (even at our Group of Eight universities) are noticeably below what they are in good Canadian and UK and US universities. As for a serious Ivy League or Oxbridge undergraduate education, well, we are not in the same league as those institutions because we demand so little of our students.
Australian universities are not good enough, apparently, because students need to read more, and think, and pursue things on their own. 

He also makes a personal judgement that what you learn at university must be superior to the skills you learn at work, or that working and earning a living is not ‘pursuing things on your own’. That doesn’t really sound like a typical Australian attitude to me. My personal experience in economics is that a degree gets you in the door, then it is all down to experience. Working while studying, especially in your chosen field, is quite advantageous.

But he really doesn’t elaborate any further. Is university performance measured by research output? Is it measured by revenue? If so, he doesn’t have much of a case against the administrative bias towards academics who generate research grants.

Or is it the number of peer reviewed journal articles? If so, is it quantity or quality? Who will judge quality? Is it student numbers per academic? Or is it student quality? Who will assess that? Or do we judge performance on the gut feel of visiting academics with their own personal biases?

I don’t want to sound harsh, but for a senior academic writing about the underperformance of Australian universities, a little note about what underperformance really means, framed within the role of universities within society, would be nice. He signals that it should be research output, noting that people
…could see the difference between judging people based on what they wrote and produced versus one that judged them based largely on winning as many grants as possible.
but fails to return to how this measure fits into his picture of a competitive university system.

Whinging about the rules doesn’t really help. It is like an Apple employee coming into the company and saying they have a lot of centralised decision-making and that engineers were slugged with bureaucratic tasks, such as getting central approvals to spend money on new equipment. Whereas at their last job they could do as they please.

Sure, from the employee perspective this seems like a horrible system to work in. But any outsider assessing the performance of the company as a whole would feel it is worth it. That’s because we have an agreed measure of what company performance is. For universities we don’t, and that is usually the recipe for a growing bureaucracy.

Allan lays some of the blame at a lack of competition, perhaps due to some cultural norm of families not sending their sons and daughters interstate to the ‘best’ university in their field. Apparently this lack of competition means that universities can slack off and amuse themselves with ever more burdensome central rule-making and ever-greater executive pay.

Allan writes
In this sense, Australia and its universities are at a disadvantage. Imagine what would happen if parents were as likely to send their kids to Melbourne University as to Sydney University or the University of Queensland or Australian National University, and the deciding factors came down to what the universities had to offer, say in terms of class sizes or contact with professors or the “undergraduate experience”.
There are two problems with this point. First, is that the universities are full of international students. Outside of law especially. Surely these students are discerning about their university choice and hence provide a great deal of competitive pressure. According to the ABS 22% of students at university in Australia are international students, while at some universities that figure is over 40%. Monash and Melbourne universities seem to be competing quite fiercely, with Melbourne experimenting with student offerings at great risk.

Second, the central rules that Allan hates so much are just as much the result of competitive forces, than on the lack of such forces; of trying to attract students by ensuring the get the easiest path through their study. We’ve seen the gimmicks about giving new student iPads. Allan mentions the imposition of consistent marking systems, PhD criteria for lecturing positions, timing of student evaluations; all of these are about managing university-wide quality in order to assure new students of what they will be getting. Haven’t you seen advertisements?

This is what happens with competition for students (customers), and students mean revenue. If you want universities run competitively like private businesses, you must expect that they will measure their success in similar ways.

So where does research output fit into his competitive picture? It certainly doesn't raise revenues, and most undergraduates, the customers of universities, wouldn’t have a clue about their school’s research anyway.

Regarding the lack of travel to university, if I can sum up the Australian view very roughly, it is that university is more like advanced vocational training. Degrees that used to be provided by technical colleges are now integrated into universities. Students don’t travel because their local university usually maintains standards high enough to get them into their chosen field. Why travel if you can be assured of equally good local training? After all, once you are in the door, your experience counts much more than your degree in most fields.
He writes
When I try to point out the advantages of sending one’s kids away to university here in Australia I am generally met with blank stares of incredulity.
But of course, he didn’t mention any of those advantages in his article. Could it be that there really aren’t many? Or is he saying that Australians are just too stupid to see them?

Which leads to the more entrenched problem. The competition that drives student selection and travel for study in the US and the UK is the result of monopoly power of universities so that students must compete rather than universities. And this competition between students is also driven from a higher level. Reputation and insider connections within top universities to political and corporate elites means the payoff to getting into those universities is much higher. A degree at Princeton or Harvard is a meal ticket with a value far higher than cost of tuition itself. This not only means that students want to travel to get in to these universities, but that they (and their parents) are willing to pay through the nose for it as well. Here’s just one example of the political connections a degree at Oxford brings.

In Australia we don’t have that ‘boys club’ mentality to such an extent, especially not in most degrees. Having a teaching degree from QUT doesn’t open doors at Goldman Sachs, unlike a finance degree from MIT.

While I am sure Allan feels much better getting this all off his chest, I can’t help but think he has missed the important points to focus on his personal gripes. He overlooks exactly why Australian universities aren’t good enough, and then appeals to competition as some magical remedy to all organisational problems like some evangelical Chicago economist. Lastly, his suggestions for improving the situations include a bunch of central administrative tools!

One of his suggestions, the publication of remuneration of the highest paid employees, is generally already complied with in the annual financial accounts, where executive pay is itemised (here’s UQ, here’s QUT). But of course, executive pay exploding is not limited to universities. It is a general problem of power that competition alone does not solve.

Another suggestion is to publish the ratio of academic to non-academic staff, which is essentially a meaningless ratio because it absolutely depends on the tasks each staff is responsible for. If administrative staff are freeing up time for academics, then that is a good thing. I could imagine these suggestions being implemented and a future version of Professor Allan writing another article deriding them!

He suggests scrapping the ARC grant system, but makes no suggestion of alternative funding allocation mechanisms, as if by magic money will find worthy researchers. I agree the system is poor, but we need to be discussing better alternatives. Why didn’t Allan tell us a bit about the funding systems in those hot-shot universities he so reveres?

When push comes to shove Allan goes for the practical over the ideological, which is a good thing. But it leaves you wondering what the point of all those words really were. Will they merely be interpreted as at the ravings of a sheltered and entitled academic? We have quite enough of that already.

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1 comment:

  1. >. If administrative staff are freeing up time for academics, then that is a good thing.

    Didn't seem to be the case in the Academic Review done at a uni I know.

    The heaviest element known to science was recently discovered by University physicists. The element, tentatively named Administratium (AD), has no protons or electrons, which means that its atomic number is 0. However, it does have 1 neutron, 125 assistants to the neutron, 75 vice-neutrons and 111 assistants to the vice-neutrons. This gives it an atomic mass number of 312. The 312 particles are held together in the nucleus by a force that involves the continuous exchange of meson-like particles called memos.
    Since it has no electrons Administratium is inert. However, it can be detected chemically because it seems to impede every reaction in which it is present. According to one of the discoverers of the element, a very small amount of Administratium made one reaction that normally takes less than a second take over 4 days.
    Administratium has a half-life of approximately 3 years, at which time it does not actually decay. Instead, it undergoes a reorganization in which assistants to the neutron, vice-neutrons, and assistants to the vice-neutrons exchange place. Some studies have indicated that the atomic mass number actually increases after each reorganization.