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Niches or clones

October 15th, 2010

Chris Bertram’s CT post on the Browne reforms[1] in UK Higher Education has prompted me to write a post I’d half-planned a while ago, after seeing this familiar (to Australian eyes) claim.

Too many universities simply state a desire to “achieve excellence in teaching and research” and appear unable to carve out a market niche, Professor Beer said.

The idea that a pseudo-market system (centralised control but with sharper price incentives) will generate diversity is one of many illusions that were exposed during the Australian reform era of the 1990s. Faced with pressure to find a market niche and select a “flagship” program, 37 Australian universities (out of 37) decided that business education and a multitude of specifically labelled vocational degrees were the right niche and that an MBA would be a good flagship. This is scarcely surprising: given the incentives, business degrees were the obvious profit centre. It’s only as the reform program has faded from memory that we are seeing serious attempts at diversity like the “Melbourne model”

However, similar choices didn’t produce a homogenous outcome. Rather, the historical hierarchy (century-old sandstones at the top, former teachers colleges at the bottom) which had been somewhat muted when funding flowed a little more freely, re-emerged stronger than ever. At the top, there was enough surplus to maintain, more or less, the full range of disciplines as well as the long-established professional schools (law, pharmacy and so on). The further down the scale you went the less of the arts, humanities and sciences survived. This apparently came as a surprise to the Australian equivalents of Professor Beer.

Even more bizarre was the shock expressed by some market advocates when they discovered that, with a customer base consisting of 18-year olds (who understood their own preferences), and parents (who mostly knew very little about units), the market produced very little demand for anything that was hard and didn’t purport to offer training for a well-paid job. Some of them seriously appeared to think that the market would kill off critical theory in favor of good old-fashioned classical education. In fact, provided the pill was sugar-coated with film studies and pop culture, critical theory didn’t do too badly, at least relative to old-style humanities. I myself am affiliated with the QUT Centre for Creative Industries, which derives much more from crit theory than from lit crit.

Australia has a long history of importing policies that have already failed in the UK. It’s a source of mild schadenfreude to see the trade going in the opposite direction for once.

fn1. As always, I use “reform” to mean “change in structure” with no implication of approval or disapproval. Given the history of C20, most reforms consist, in large measure, of undoing some previous reform.

  1. gregh
    October 15th, 2010 at 16:00 | #1

    I also had a schadenfreude moment when I saw the UK report. Eurozine has had a number of interesting articles on the Bologna process recently
    http://www.eurozine.com/comp/focalpoints/bologna.html
    but really the monetization of everything has been hideous and the new Dawkins reforms AQF are the nail in the coffin of higher ed – oops no more higher ed, its now a job training system. Business knows best.

  2. BilB
    October 15th, 2010 at 16:37 | #2

    Creative Industries, there is a new term to me. Now I know what discipline my daughter is studying at Melbourne Uni. Thanks.

    Creative Industries, see how comfortable I am with the term, are the cornerstone of a low resource consumption growth economy, and a huge future consumer of boadband.

    It is very troubling that 37 of 37 of the best of the best of the best educational institutions would have such shallow foresight as to all see business education, ie predominance of overheads education to production education, as being the best career direction. No wonder we had a Global Financial Crisis. All those MBA’s with nothing to do but fiddle the books.

    The best thing that has happened in entertainment in recent years is Masterchef (and So you Think you can Dance). Finally we have a break in the dead brain feed that focuses on something positive and empowering, moving away from the otherwise incessant Hollywood trope of coping with crime, or how to be rich, mean and bitchey.

    So how can so many UK Universities have difficulty finding an area in which to excell. I would have thought that global warming, climate change, overpopulation, and resource exhaustion would be offering an abundance of inspiration. This is the future real world, we not only have to learn what it will be like we have to learn how to survive it. There have got to be a plethora of Degrees in there, and if students start to learn about it all this next year, they will have a huge client base by the time they have graduated.

  3. gerard
    October 15th, 2010 at 17:20 | #3

    about a year ago when the dollar was weak, UQ drastically cut library opening hours on the pretense that the journal subscriptions had become too expensive and they needed to cut costs. of course now that the dollar is strong they aren’t reversing that decision. in fact, only a few months ago, the UQ library announced plans to destroy large stocks of library books (anything that hadn’t been borrowed for 20 years) on the grounds that they couldn’t afford to build any additional storage space. Worse; they would not even be providing a list of the books they were planning to dispose of.

  4. conrad
    October 15th, 2010 at 18:42 | #4

    “the market produced very little demand for anything that was hard and didn’t purport to offer training for a well-paid job.”

    A lot of this has nothing to do with the university system — It has to do with the school system and less obvious cultural factors. For example, if you compare Aus to the US, almost exactly the same type of problems that afflict Australia in science and technology afflict the US (i.e., no-one wants to do maths and science any more), even though the US university system is very much different to ours. Thus, even if Australian universities didn’t go through the process they did, it’s hard to see how these disciplines would be much better off than they are now unless you are claiming that they would be offering a great diverse range of expensive programs with few students to do them. Indeed, some of the changes actually allowed some of these disciplines to survive — overseas postgraduate students, for example, are often willing to do hard stuff in subjects that Australian and American students generally are not (in the US, for example, more Chinese nationals get PhDs than US nationals across all disciplines, let alone maths and science ones).

  5. Alice
    October 15th, 2010 at 18:42 | #5

    Hang on a minute Prof – Ive been aroubnd since 1990 on campus. It started like this – hece went up and foreign students appeared paying more than hecs. Oh dear – some couldnt speak good english (we all knew that but money trumped understanding), so to make sure we could keep the passes up to a certain acceptable level (would want those foreign students to get scared off) – we wiggled and we squirmed and we asked them “want to do humanities??” Nope =- cant get immigration points. Want to do accounting. So Business flew and everything else struggled and some schools died.
    Lets not pretend it has been any other way
    except that now – with humanities comatose, the CPAs socoety complained (dont trust a word they say – they only want the foriegn dollar there faster to pay CPA fees) – there were too many eco subjects in business degrees (macro killed along with humanities by now).

    Ha surprise surprise – the private sector starts complaining to the CPA society “your uni grads cant even write a litrerate job application – how come they are in possession of a degree from a major university??”

    Result/ Gillard moves immigration points from Accounting to Engineering.

    Please someone tell me if I am wrong and lets not gloss over what unis have been chasing for the past ten to 12 years.

    I cant play this “pretend its not as bad in higher education as it is game”. Im just a casual and I dont care. I have no loyalty and this is what Ive seen.

  6. Alice
    October 15th, 2010 at 18:52 | #6

    Lets not also perpeutaten myths further. In higher ed as in the public hospital system we have seen previously employed people who earned less than acaedmics advance to public sector wages higher than entry academics ie secretaries to schools, and co-orinators to faculty boards on nice salaries between 70 to 100K.
    Meanwhile back in front of classes any sessional academics earn crap (not enough to stay) and entry level lecturers barely scrape 60k if there is actually a job released to advertise one (why do that when you can exploit casual academic teachers funding their own phds – Steven Schwarz loves the free market in academic salaries)…

    So we value managers and secrtearies more than we value academics and we value the export academia produce more than we value real knowledge.

    Well Tafe does it just as good, and vocationals do it faster, so lets not have any illusions in higher ed anymore.

    Prof you are a relic of a good university system that all but died (in fact was killed off) before you retired. Lucky you.

  7. conrad
    October 15th, 2010 at 18:53 | #7

    “Rather, the historical hierarchy (century-old sandstones at the top, former teachers colleges at the bottom) which had been somewhat muted when funding flowed a little more freely, re-emerged stronger than ever. At the top, there was enough surplus to maintain, more or less, the full range of disciplines as well as the long-established professional schools (law, pharmacy and so on). The further down the scale you went the less of the arts, humanities and sciences survived. ”

    I wouldn’t believe that claim without data. There has, for example, been a proliferation of lower level universities getting medical schools. In Victoria, that includes La Trobe and Deakin, neither of which are very thrilling places. In addition, sciences have been cut back or stagnated pretty much everywhere as far as I can tell (go ask someone at Monash), but even the lowest universities in the chain in Australia have arts and humanities courses (often badged to be trendy — I think they are better at doing this than the sandstones), and some sandstone universities (like Melbourne) have been happy to ruthlessly cutback their humanities and arts.

  8. Ikonoclast
    October 16th, 2010 at 08:24 | #8

    Never has this country been so wealthy and yet it can’t afford free tertiary education now when it could a generation ago! Why is this? The real problem is corporate welfare and special interest welfare (called negative gearing and tax incentives) for the rich.

    Corporate welfare in Australia runs to about 15 billion per annum according to our own Productivity Commission. Add in negative gearing, tax incentives and undertaxing of the rich and I suspect that another 15 billion per annum is easily involved. This is a criminal theft from the workers who create the wealth by actually working.

    The corporations, the corporate managerialist bosses and the rich do-nothing rentiers are the real bludgers in our society. They amnd their system are to blame for the lack of money for imperative social needs like free tertiary education. Free tertiary education is possible. We know this from the empirical facts of our own national history and it was possible with less wealth per capita than we have today.

  9. Jill Rush
    October 16th, 2010 at 08:37 | #9

    The market distortions that have been created by the increasing numbers of Business Graduates are nothing compared to the wave of Managerialism that has been created. We see evidence of this in Government Departments which used to deliver services. Now we have the same numbers of public servants managing contracts so that others can actually deliver. If we look at the increase in red tape in our lives and the need to manage liability issues that never existed we can look to universities which have been turning out far more lawyers.

    Rather than drop the price of legal services which was supposedly the reason to skill up more lawyers we have a market where lawyers have embarked on creating new work through liability. Then because we have so many managers we need to import people who can actually perform the hands on stuff at an affordable price. These may even be the people brought in from overseas to study in Australia but cannot actually work in their chosen field because they don’t actually have the language skills required but who do meet visa requirements. It may also be the poorly paid academic who is in the control of those they may have even helped train as managers.

    Not that the managers who now run the universities will change anything now. The horse has well and truly bolted.

  10. gregh
    October 16th, 2010 at 08:53 | #10

    @Jill Rush
    I agree Jill

  11. Alice
    October 16th, 2010 at 09:29 | #11

    @gregh
    I also agree – and another thing I really hate about the Howard years was the massive increase in corporate welfare – how many Registered Training Organisations are there now who offer little, charge a lot and exist only by virtue of subsidies, tax breaks and legislation. How many vocational training sheds now exist on private school grounds whilst Tafe and Unis have been starved of funds? How many apprentice placement organisations are taking half of all apprentice wages across the country. Whilst the host employers and the placement agency gets tax breaks – the apprentice cannot live on his wages.I call that profiteering from the most vulnerable – the Howard idea of tax welfare bypasses the one with the greatest need diverting it to private sector firms.

    Has all this subsidisation filtered down to students in the form of lower educational costs?. Resounding no. Many graduates have failed to repay their hec debts well into their 30s and beyond – like tying a sack of bricks to them while studying the ever more expanding courses being sold to them. Stay longer at uni – grow your own hecs debt – three years turns into five and 6 full time with the proliferation of double degrees purportedly making them “more competitive” After that they can do an array of glossily advertised coursework masters with price tags in the stratosphere.

    The horse has truly bolted Fran. This is not education for learnings sake, or the greater benefit of the youth of the country and hence the future of the country, this is education for short term ill thought out grasping money’s sake (and academics have been co-opted to its pursuit).

    If you want the truth, dress as a student, go to the overcrowded tutorial or lecture, open your hideously expensive textbook, encounter a problem and try to find a time to see your Lecturer or Tutor one on one. Submit your assignment and get it back with a hurried scratched mark in red and no comments or feedback at all.

  12. gregh
    October 17th, 2010 at 06:45 | #12

    A nice comment on higher ed in the US that is consistent with the experience here and more generally
    http://www.jehsmith.com/1/2010/10/thoughts-occasioned.html

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