These are our leaders?

The website of the Group of Eight long-established universities has a section devoted to “Leaders Statements” supporting the Abbott government’s university reform[1] program. It’s a pretty depressing read. Not only are our leaders going in a direction that almost no-one in the sector wants to follow, but the quality of their arguments is depressingly mediocre. It’s a sad reflection on the university sector if this group is the best we can come up with to lead us.

First, there’s executive director Michael Gallagher (a longtime education bureaucrat rather than a former academic). His boilerplate advocacy of microeconomic reform reads as if he hasn’t had a new idea in 20 years. Most notably, he’s still beating the drum for the discredited for-profit model of the University of Phoenix. After giving the most glancing acknowledgement of the scandals that have exposed Phoenix as a machine for ripping off federal grants, he says

The important policy point is not about individual providers but about the directions of change that pioneering providers indicate for the future through their successes and failures. The thing about the US enterprise culture, unlike Australia’s, is a willingness to accept learning from failure as a step to success.

I thought we’d got over this “succeeding by failing” stuff back at the time of the dotcom bubble.

Then we have Warren Bebbington of the University of Adelaide who asserts

in a competitive environment, some fees will go up and some down. Students will have a range of choice they have never had before

Seriously? If Bebbington really believes this, I have a perpetual motion machine to sell him. His Go8 colleague, Ian Young was much more honest when he said that the Go8 institutions will not only raise fees across the board but will use the resulting financial freedom to cut intakes and offer smaller classes. That is, students will face both higher prices and less choice.

But the prize for embarrassment must surely go to the University of Western Australia whose Vice-Chancellor, Paul Johnson, asserts

“Government does not decide what businesses can charge for a loaf of bread, a litre of milk or any other product or service. Why should universities be any different?”

Apparently Professor Johnson has never heard of the Economic Regulatory Authority of Western Australia which, like its counterparts at state and federal level regulates the prices of a wide range of products and services, for a wide range of very good reasons. This is a level of argument which would be lame even for a random rightwing blogger.

Unfortunately, there is nothing new in this. Back in the 1990s, Alan Gilbert of Melbourne was pushing the Phoenix model and asserting that traditional academics were “handloom weavers” doomed to extinction. Among his many achievements was the $50-100 million or so wasted on U21Global, Melbourne University Private and similar initiatives. Before his unfortunate brush with plagiarism, David Robinson touted Monash as “the world’s first global university”, launching a series of overseas campuses that rapidly turned into money pits. At CQU, Lauchlan Chipman pioneered the use of universities as devices to rort Australia’s immigration system, with expensive central city campuses devoted entirely to overseas students majoring in Permanent Residency, while the domestic students in Rockhampton got nothing. The same advisors who pushed these disasters, along with likeminded successors, are driving education policy today.

fn1. I’ve given up using scare quotes around “reform”. Reform is just change of form, and there’s no reason to expect it will be beneficial.

66 thoughts on “These are our leaders?

  1. @J-D

    “The idea that there was a time when universities were not ‘vocational’ is widely popular, but it won’t withstand scrutiny. The primary (although not the only) purpose of most (although not all) students in going to university is to improve their employment prospects, and that’s the way it’s always been, ever since the idea of the university was invented.

    It is not as easy as you suggest. By a suitable choice of interpretation of ‘vocational’ and ’employment’ one may reach any conclusion one wants.

    Even in areas like law and accounting, which have long established career paths, university graduates have to do vocational studies after they graduate.

    In my opinion, there are two questions, which assist in distinguishing between vocational training and research based university education. Material which belongs to the former can be organised around the question: How? Material which belongs to the latter can be organised around the question: Why?

    Note, I write “assist” to signal that there are overlaps of ‘why’ and ‘how’ in many discipline areas and the question then becomes of relative weights.

    @50 you write:

    “… When you were at university, who was it that sniffed at arts degrees for not getting you a job? Wasn’t it the students doing all the other degrees that were to get them jobs?”

    Careful. Generalisations from a casual observation or two are not a solid basis for drawing conclusions. For many years Macquarie University offered only B.A. undergraduate degrees. (There are other examples). That is, their graduates in earth sciences (which were and probably still are) highly regarded, graduated with a B.A. So did people in Ecoomics and Finance, Linquistics, History, etc. The advantage of this structure was that students could take a small number of subjects in schools other than where they majored in. Intellectual and technical lightweight courses such as ‘business’ did not exist at the time.

    How does this bit of reality fit into your mental model?

  2. John. I think there IS something wrong with universities now (too many administrators, marketing people, and new shiny (expensive) buildings). Not enough teachers and researchers. Where is the quality value for money education from the university sector that was available 10-20 years ago?

    But the proposed reforms won’t fix that. It will just make the situation worse. @John Brookes

  3. @Ernestine Gross

    Students have different motives for enrolling at university. Even the same student can have more than one motive. For some students improving employment prospects is not the only motive, for some it’s not the primary motive, and for some it’s not a motive at all. But taking things by and large it plays a bigger role than any other motive: probably a bigger role than all the other motives put together.

    This is not changed by the fact that many if not all professions do not admit university graduates to full rights of independent practice without meeting other requirements. Graduates in medicine have to go on to internships; that doesn’t change the fact that overwhelmingly the most important motive for people to undertake medical degrees is in pursuit of employment as doctors. Graduates in architecture have to meet additional professional requirements: that doesn’t change the fact that overwhelmingly the most important motive for people to undertake architecture degrees is in pursuit of employment as architects; and so on.

    It is probably true that there are other institutions that are more exclusively focussed on improving people’s employment prospects than are universities, but at least from the point of students (in general) the most important role of universities is in improving their employment prospects — not the only role, but the most important one.

    In answer to your final question: I have no trouble believing what you tell me about how Macquarie University once offered all its undergraduate degrees under the title of BA, but I don’t see how that puts my case in doubt. I also wonder about the significance of the change in that policy (you tell me it’s what they did for many years, which creates the impression that it’s no longer true). Was it, I wonder, a decision made in the planning stages, before Macquarie had any actual enrolments, and was it ultimately abandoned, at least in part, as a result of the experience of working to attract them? But that’s by the way. More important is this question: are you suggesting that when all Macquarie’s undergraduate degrees were called BA, the students, or the bulk of them, were uninterested in improving their employment prospects, or not primarily interested in doing so? That seems to me a big conclusion to hang on no more than a policy of degree titling.

  4. @ZM

    Not at all — although as a matter of fact I was only using the term in response to its use by Donald Oats. But I am well aware of the specific usage of ‘vocation’ to refer to a person’s ‘calling’ to the priesthood, and it ties in with my point, since in medieval times also the primary motive of university students was to improve their employment prospects, but in those times primarily in the Church.

  5. JD,

    This is another example of your cynicism. What is your data on numbers of university students in medieval times studying for employment rather than a true vocation? Surely you wouldn’t make such a claim without hard data 😉

  6. @ZM

    I am satisfied on the point in my own mind, but I fully acknowledge that there is no reason why that should carry any weight with anybody else. I have no primary data on the motives of medieval university students. Do you? In the absence of data to settle the point, is any conclusion justified? Is there any reason to favour the view that medieval university students were not primarily concerned with employment prospects over the converse view that they were, or should we rather treat this as an unknown?

  7. @J-D
    Sorry, missed your reply. You seem to have misunderstood my point that the difference between the olden days and the bright new now is that the core business of universities used to be providing an education whilst now it seems to be providing training for a job. The two are not the same.

    When you were at university, who was it that sniffed at arts degrees for not getting you a job? Wasn’t it the students doing all the other degrees that were to get them jobs?

    No. It was the general run of the mill member of the public who didn’t understand the difference between education and training.

  8. @zoot

    I don’t understand what you mean by ‘the core business’ of universities, then or now. The expression conveys no meaning to me in this context. To me the expression ‘the core business of universities’ is only (metaphorically) noise. If somebody says to me that what universities do has changed, or that the way universities operate has changed, I can agree that they have changed, in many respects, and wonder which particular changes are of interest to my interlocutor. But if somebody says to me that the core business of universities has changed, I’m just baffled, at a loss to know that could possibly mean. I don’t mean that I disagree: I’d have to understand what the statement meant before I could either agree or disagree, and I don’t understand.

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