Universities and stratification

One of the big themes in the debate over university education has been that we should have a more differentiated system, rather than a ‘one-size fits all’ solution. This view is shared by market-oriented reformers and by some traditionalists, who look back nostalgically to the days when each state had one university, catering to a small elite, while the rest went to tech, or teachers college or (for the majority) the school of hard knocks. In the idealised view, universities would compete with diverse offerings, and the informed market choices of consumers (18-year olds and their parents) would produce an ideal outcome.

In reality, the quasi-market policies that have been dominant for the last couple of decades have reduced diversity on all dimensions except one. Before the reforms that began in the 1980s, the tertiary sector included many different types of institutions (unis, CAES, institutes of technology and TAFE), and the 1970-vintage universities consciously sought to provide an innovative alternative to the long-established sandstones. Now, there are just universities and TAFE. Policies encouraging universities to nominate “flagship” programs produced the unsurprising (but apparently unexpected) result that everyone went for MBAs and no-one for pure mathematics. Responsiveness to consumer demand produced plenty of courses in cinema studies and very few in classics. And so on. There are still some attempts at doing things differently, such as the “Melbourne model”, but overall the pattern is one of identical responses to identical incentives.

On the other hand, the reforms have amplified long-standing inequalities in wealth and status between universities. Despite the rhetoric of competition, the relative rankings of Australian universities were determined more than 100 years ago, when the sandstone universities were established, followed by the precursors of the “Dawkins universities”. The reforms did not shake these rankings, but they widened the gap between the sandstones and the 1970-vintage unis – before the reforms, a university was a university, and status differences were much less important.

The model here has been the US, which has been very successful in university education, with a highly stratified system. But, the US model is breaking down as the demand for educated workers increases. As I discuss in this CT post, the number of undergraduate places in top-end US universities has been almost unchanged for decades, and the same seems to be true for the flagship state universities with which Australian unis would compare themselves.

The growth areas have been two-year community colleges, second-tier state universities (roughly equivalent to the former CAEs that now make up the bottom tier of the Australian university system) and for-profit degree mills like the “University” of Phoenix. These institutions, and especially the for-profits, have appalling dropout rates, with the result that the proportion of young Americans completing degrees, stagnant for many years, now appears to be declining.

The US was the first country to move to a norm of universal high school completion and mass higher education, back in the 1950s (with expanded access for women and blacks in the 1960s and 1970s). That was both a consequence and a cause of US dominance of the global economy. To an important extent, the US is still living on its capital in this respect, but the model is no longer sustainable and we should not try to emulate it.

Australia should aim for diversity in educational offerings, but not for stratification in quality. We should encourage all young Australians to complete high-school and provide them all with high-quality university, technical or trade education after that.

18 thoughts on “Universities and stratification

  1. I have no idea why Australian unis keep puppy tail wagging and padding after US tertiary models and US accreditation….
    Who turned us into little Tallahassee?
    Growth in the US for two year award courses and community colleges could just be the consumers way of saying to tier one unis – we dont think the money and time is worth it.

  2. Pure Mathematics and Statistics have both suffered greatly. Physics to a lesser degree, Applied Mathematics has too. There are substantial criticisms of the North American university system with regards to physics. Lee Smolin (“The Trouble with Physics”, Penguin Books, 2008) has discussed at length the difficulties in physics where a single area so dominates that it skews the career process of young physicists: work in that area and you need to be very cognisant of the in-fashion topics of research, or wither on the research grants vine for lack of $$ nourishment. Now, Smolin’s case is not necessarily a complete and objective view of his intellectual area of devotion, but hey – he isn’t a nobody either! More broadly, there are plenty of other scientists who have drawn similar conclusions about the risk-averse nature of the grants system, and of the universities themselves, in the way that they virtually require a proposal to have results (preliminary data, anyone?), which makes it incredibly difficult for new-comers to undertake independent research.

    As for the Australian system, it would be interesting to make some comparisons in time of faculties now and faculties then (say 25–30 years ago, a little before the Dawkins Revulsion, sorry, Dawkins Revolution). In particular the composition and depth of HSC/PEB/PES/Yr 12/etc final high school year subjects now vs then, and similar comparison for university department educational offerings. It is difficult to be objective, as there is a well-known feeling in depts that the quality is declining, but given that the same feeling has been there as long as the linoleum, I doubt that it is an adequate measure.

  3. JQ, After I discovered your blog-site in 2005 I came across your July 2 2003 thread: “Word for Wednesday: managerialism (definition). I indexed it because I found your post and some comments to be spot on. https://johnquiggin.com/inde.php/archives/2003/07/02/word-for-wednesday-managerialism

    It seems to me the content of your 2003 post is pertinent to the present theme. Without purging managerialism from Universities (and governments) one may as well contemplate deleting the word ‘university’ from our vocabulary.

    For example, in your 2003 post, you argue that managerialism rejects the notion of professionalism. This is important (not merely because it corresponds to my experience). Obviously ‘managers’ of universities who subscribe to managerialism, as characterised, do not have professional expertise which allows them to exercise judgement and they do have an inquisitive mind and power of imagination combined with the discipline of reason which seems to be a prerequisite for subjects that are now said to be neglected (eg pure mathematics and classics). As you wrote in 2003, “The main features of managerialist policy are incessant organisational restructuring, sharpening of incentives, and expansion in the number, power and remuneration of senior managers, with a corresponding downgrading of the role of skilled workers, and particularly professionals.” Now what is an organisation which has no professional academics in any area other than ‘management’? I suggest it is not a university as we have understood this term.

  4. Quality of everything (teaching, standards, research) is declining…since we adopted the market model for unis. What do we expect? Who wants to pay for knowledge unless its immediately profit returning? You cant milk cows for more than they are willing and able to produce and thats what we have been doing to the students.

  5. The concept of education is certainly changing, and it may take a while to work out where it is actually going to end up.

    The rise of a “DIY U” ethos may likely be the future. There was an excellent TED talk on this recently.

  6. @Ernestine Gross
    Too true Ernestine – a Dean of UTS told me at least 6 years ago…and about the same time he retired…that the scourge of universities was the rise of managerialism as he saw it and as he explained it so lucidly… could I see the squashing of academic brilliance and the quality of knowledge..

    But this is not unique to university systems…look further afield to health and transport systems as two examples… both of which are failing in our modern cities.

    You find the same disease. A growth in committees to manage the problems yet solve nothing and improve nothing …except perhaps their own managerial salaries.

  7. JQ, so it seems. It has always occurred to me how often behaviour in the University sector mirrors behaviour in the sports business. What you describe is analogous to league expansion in the case where you already have a limited number of dominant teams (think major football leagues of Europe). In sport, fans want balance to some degree, and a number of leagues that have expended in recent years (Scottish from 10 to 12, Italian from 18 to 20, etc.) have exacerbated the problem of imbalance. The debate with Universities is obviously different, but similarities are evident as I usually find. Just a thought!

  8. @iain

    Your reference contained several presentations. IMHO, the DIY U ‘ethos’ is just another example of managerialism in education. Among the presenters, only the priest had a non-managerialist approach. Sure, the priest may be presumed to be in the business of selling a message of belief and inspiration to get followers. He is good at it. He may be presumed to be in the business of helping people by offering his messages. If so, he is good at it. He doesn’t pretend to be teaching science or economics. But how convincing is a promoter of the phrase ‘DIY U’ who fails to ask one question and get an answer from the audience? How plausible is the ‘DIY U’ idea that people show the output of their own (individualist) research on (?) to HR managers to get a job? As far as I am concerned, the promoter of the ‘DIY U’ phrase convinced me that that which is usable is not new (people talk to each other, compare notes on within and outside curriculum topics and make their own observations) and the rest is useless managerialist promotional talk.

  9. “Australia should aim for diversity in educational offerings, but not for stratification in quality.”

    Unless the quality is higher than the lowest common denominator, which seems to be close to where most places are at or are aiming for now, I’m not why you wouldn’t want this. Your thinking, I seem to believe, is based on an ideal system, not one that works in any likely constraints that universities will have into the future. For example, you use the University of Phoenix as an example of something bad, but where I work, it’s a role model (or at least that’s what managment they’re aiming for), since they have a model that can deliver low cost courses.

  10. Ernestine has hit the nail on the head. Generic managerialism along with privatisation and marketisation of education and other govt services has done huge damage to Australia. What angers me is that these policies keep failing (in empirically measureable ways) and yet their promoters keep proclaiming success (by lies, obfuscation, moving the goalposts etc.) and are able keep their hands on the power levers.

    What can explain their staying power when their policies demonstrably damage the overall economy and well being of the majority while enriching the few? It can only be the power of corporate managerialist financial ponzi style capitalism (as opposed to more productive variants of capitalism) that is behind all this.

    Look at the USA. They have wrecked it. Nearly fifty million US citizens now live in poverty, that is about 1 in 7. Their middle class is collapsing. 20th C history shows that when your middle class collapses into poverty your country collapses into fascism or revolution. That is where the US is headed unless they change dirstion very soon. Is that where we want to go?

  11. @Ikonoclast
    Dont forget the infrastructure that has been left illmaintained…for all the so called market paradigm in unis and the export “market” that have been shoved in like so many cattle along with local students…classes run on a shoe string by casuals, permanent academics worked excessively on administration of student volumes without sufficient help such that they are vacating the sector…

    How can TE claim success in Australia? It is becoming a joke whereby private sector employers are starting to wonder aloud what is going when people apply illiterately for jobs clutching degrees. Where is the evidence that it is so successful the infrastructure (ie unis) are growing to accommodate more demand?. Sardine city and flexible labour rules while fatcat bureacrats preside over all with tenured pay and rights academics increasingly dream about and the NTEU union fawns to the fattest and elitist in the uni system – not the majority. How many new universities have we got since 1990? Now Tafe teachers are forced to sit around and listen to managers explain “the business model” whilst Tafe is also being starved of funds and many closed (with plans to close more).
    Tell me – does a good business model mean closures and no expansion?
    Thats all Ive seen happen (and the majority of private education providers who have exploded are shonky visa immigration rip off soup kitchens).

    Im sure Ikono – 1 in 7 living in poverty in the US would be welcomed by some who may say ” the market model is a great success – at last we have the flexible labour force we have been dreaming of. They will go anywhere and do anything for any amount of time for wages equal to a banana.”

    Shame they wont be able to buy goods when they work all day for a measly banana…in the end the wealthy will be dragged down as well by market policies they have spent half a century championing.

  12. I simply dont like to see students crowded in lectures and crowded into classrooms and too many of them for the lecturers to consult individually…but unis are happy to take their increasing fees and are busy investing ways to get even more money out of students for less service (double degrees..grad diplomas…MBAs en masse straight from the production line).

    Someone tell me…do actual Professors sit on committees thinking about how to extract even more money from students and the private use of uni facilities these days? Id really like to know who does this (because someone does).

    Greed rules and education standards sink.

  13. I dropped into the University of Adelaide recently, and had a closer look at the new Mathematics Building. About $100m AUD, or so I’m told. After seeing it during the student semester I would say that the architect(s) had given it a good deal of thought. There are many open areas where people may congregate to talk or use whatever the flavour of the week gizmo they have at hand, and there are smaller alcoves that provide a feeling of being off the main beat. Tables and chairs, lounges and coffee-tables are some of the furniture provided for the various alcoves and open areas. And elevators, oh what an innovation for a multi-storey building!

    It is a step or two up from the “battleship grey” painted interior walls, or the spew yellow coloured lecture theatre walls, with office windows that couldn’t be closed in some cases, or opened in others, due to the contractors painting over them in whatever position they were at, at the time.

    I’m only guessin’ but I suspect that a combination of land sale and full-fee-paying students, and maybe HECS fees as well, paid for all this. This would make a good argument for the HECS system, right? I’m thinking probably not, given that this building had been talked about for the entire time I was there, which pre-dates HECS by a handful of years. There must have been some thought of funding a new building even before HECS. Even so, if the university had a few thousand HECS students every year up and until completion of the building, that is a loot of moola, enough for many buildings of that expense. In any case, I would assume that they took out loans during the lower part of the interest rate cycle since that fits in roughly with the timing of the building. I won’t begrudge them their new buildings.

    Teacher-to-Student ratios, on the other hand…

  14. @Donald Oats
    yes well …as much as I like architects and their work Don – unis do seem to be into engaging the best that money can buy these days when they want a refurbishment dont they??

    Are you suggesting — there a bit of ego tripping going on at the top?

    Now back to class sizes.

  15. @Alice
    The boys like to have buildings named after them. Sometimes, that requires knocking down an existing one to make room for the new one 🙂

  16. @Donald:
    Having worked at The University of Qld some years back, the eternal building spree was something that came to irritate me no end. Lecturers being laid off, casuals employed for one subject with no hope of a career, subjects and schools being cut, but there was always money for another building.

    Of course, being a bureaucrat myself, I realised that funding for staff most likely comes from a different bucket of money than funding for buildings, but it still frustrated me then and continues to do so now.

  17. @Jim
    I’m sure you’re not alone in feeling the frustration, Jim. However, that is the eternal trade-off: do I hang in there for yet another year with a teaching building that pre-dates the pyramids, or do I build a new one which much better suits the modern teaching environment and then have to make some tough budget decisions? Of course, the irony is that a modern teaching environment is one without lecturers or tutors, but with a great looking building to house them. Which reminds me of the “Yes, Minister” episode in which there is a hospital that has no patients but runs smoothly – what a great series that was!

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