The Go8 knows nothing about the US university system

I’ve just downloaded the submission of the Group of Eight (the body representing vice-chancellors and presidents of Australia’s leading research universities to the Senate Committee of Inquiry into the government’s higher education reforms. The core of the argument in favour of a shift to a US-style system is as follows

deregulation offers institutions a way of opening doors to the future. In the words of Professor Warren Bebbington, Vice Chancellor of the University of Adelaide

higher education in Australia could be transformed into the most dynamic system in the world. It would have the rich variety of the US university landscape, but without the crippling debts that American students suffer… In the US, nearly half of all students… attend teaching-only undergraduate colleges offering only Bachelor degrees. Without research programmes, these colleges do a first-class job of teaching: through small classes and an intense extra-curricular programme. Students have an unforgettable, utterly life-changing educational experience… [yet] such institutions are scarcely possible in Australia currently.

At a recent national press club address, Professor Ian Young, Vice Chancellor of The Australian National University and chair of the Group of Eight, spoke of a system where students contemplating university were offered a variety of choices, in terms of learning style, or aspirations, of practical skills or exploration of ideas, of social networks or intimate teaching styles, of research-intensive training or immediate vocational outcomes. A system that is well within our grasp if we have the vision to accept a more flexible approach to higher education

This is a truly stunning display of ignorance. The institutions described by Professor Bebbington are what is called in the US “liberal arts colleges”, elite private institutions educating a tiny fraction of the US student population, similar to the Ivy League and charging as much or more. A typical example is Wellesley, alma mater of Hillary Clinton, with 2000 students and annual tuition (including room and board) of $US 59 000 [^1]. The non-research institutions actually attended by nearly half of all US students are second-tier state universities along with a variety of private institution (for-profits like Phoenix, Christian colleges and so on), none of which offer “small classes and an intense extra-curricular programme”. They operate in old and overcrowded buildings relying heavily on overworked and underpaid adjuncts. Some do a great job under conditions of extreme financial stringency: others are disaster areas where the vast majority of students don’t complete their courses. Very few are comparable with even the bottom tier of the Australian public university system: former teachers colleges and CAEs that were converted to university status in the 1990s.

The fact that the vice-chancellor of a prominent Australian university can display this kind of ignorance about the US system is pretty startling, the fact that he is quoted with approval by a body representing the VCs of our eight leading universities even more so. Universities are (among other things) billion-dollar businesses, and their chief executives are paid accordingly. A basic part of any business is understanding the competition, especially if you plan to emulate them. Bebbington’s description of the US non-research university sector is as if a car company CEO were to describe the Trabant as an affordable German luxury car, and suggest marketing it in place of the drab offerings of Holden and Ford.

[^1]: Of course, hardly anyone pays full fare at these institutions. There are all kinds of schemes to offset the cost. Still, a middle class family thinking of sending a child to Wellesley would regard the much-discussed $100 000 degree as an incredible bargain.

30 thoughts on “The Go8 knows nothing about the US university system

  1. Small liberal arts colleges (like the one I attended for my undergraduate degree) and second-tier state universities (like the one I teach at now) in the US are not “without research programmes.” The expectations for research output at these schools are certainly much lower than at R1 schools like Penn State or Harvard, but there’s still an expectation of ongoing faculty research. Community colleges, on the other hand, usually don’t expect their professors to be doing any research — but they also usually only offer 2-year degrees.

  2. @Stentor

    You’re right about research of course, and the same is true of the better 4-year state unis. It’s not clear whether the “nearly half” number is meant to include community colleges. I plan to check this out.

  3. I think both you and the Go8 response are wrong on this if you’re talking about differences in teaching standards. Whilst the structures are obviously very different, with Australia having very large universities, at least for the courses that overlap, which are generally the ones that have grown massively in the last decade and are really the only ones that can grow due to being cheap to teach, I doubt the the mean standard of the courses is very much different. There are of course other differences, like using adjuncts versus post-graduate students, but I doubt this makes much difference to the teaching standards. Indeed, adjuncts are probably better than post-graduates since they don’t cycle through every 3 years.

  4. @conrad

    Do you have any basis for this claim, such as direct experience of the US for-profit sector? For example, are there any Australian unis with 6-year graduation rates below 30 per cent (quite common in the lower tiers of the US system)? Not as far as I know.

  5. Graduation rates are at least in part endogenous so they are certainly not the best measure, and it’s very hard to actually get good measures (especially for the US). Where I work, for example, we are more or less obliged to pass 85% of students. This sort of thing is common across Australian universities. You can imagine what that does to the standard at the lower levels when you take in students with TERs < 50 which most universities in Melbourne are willing to do now (excluding Monash and Melbourne). I also doubt that the 30% rate you mention is a lot worse than the online courses run by Aus universities, which are more or less the lowest tier of teaching here and you simply can't stop students from dropping out, no matter how low the bar is set (as I calculated for you last time). This of course is the way of the future.

    You are also focusing entirely on the US sector, which I agree has a poor record. But the comparison is not with good, it is with what is happening in Aus universities.

    Even at Go8s like your current university where the students don't have TERs of 50, there are easy things to compare if you want. For example, I believe your first year psychology course has around 2000 students and there are no face-to-face tutorials (where I work, we were surprised they could actually get away with that). I suspect it is the biggest course in your university, and this subject is even accredited by a professional body (APAC). So you basically have 12 2-hour lectures and a legion of PhD students to mark the two assignments students get, which is all the feedback they will get (they won't get any for the multi-choice exam at the end of the year). Some of these markers are probably not particularly good at writing structure or providing decent feedback on assessment as their own writing may not be great, but whoever has the nightmare of coordinating something that big will more or less have to take anyone. If students need more help, there is probably a maths and literacy centre staffed by about 10 people for the whole university (perhaps UQ is better for this).

    Are you trying to tell me that the standard of teaching could really be much lower than that? Now just imagine what it is like at non-Go8s that don't have UQs type of riches.

  6. @John Quiggin

    Not to challenge the main thrust of your argument, but is a comparison of six-year graduation rates (if possible) a fair basis for evaluation, given the different lengths of degree programs?

  7. Understanding the competition is important, but how much do Go8 members (or any Australian universities) compete with second-tier (or lower) US institutions? They certainly aren’t in the competition to attract Australian government financial support. I parse Bebbington’s remarks as an attempt to encourage Australian government policy that financially benefits Go8 universities, regardless of damage to others. ‘Give us all the research money’, he’s saying, ‘and it’ll even be good for the others that you take it away from, because teaching-only undergraduate institutions are a good thing.’ For that purpose, knowledge of the truth about the US system is an irrelevance. Since the fortunes of the University of Adelaide are Bebbington’s job, it could be argued that this kind of chicanery is part of it.

    Even if it is part of his job, though, that’s not an argument for others to assist him, so please continue to call him out by all means. I guess what I’m suggesting is that in this instance the charge against him should admit of knavery as an alternative possibility to folly.

  8. (where I work, we were surprised they could actually get away with that).

    That’s because, AFAICT, they can’t. The course profile states that it’s the standard 2L 1T.
    And, contra earlier claims, all the lecturing in this course is done by academic staff. That’s also the case for nearly all the courses in economics of which I’m aware. And we have contact hours, which are pretty much impossible for the 75 per cent of US academics now employed on adjunct basis.

    Are you trying to tell me that the standard of teaching could really be much lower than that?

    The argument from incredulity is usually a weak one. The answer is, yes, it can get worse and has done in the US, which is, after all the basis of comparison.

    @J-D Lower-tier US schools are a mixture of 2 and 4 year degrees, Oz a mixture of 3 and 4 years. I don’t think many FT students in either system graduate after taking more than 6 years, so the stats are broadly comparable.

  9. I’d be the last to claim that everything is roses in the Oz system. But statements of the form “things can’t possibly get worse” are almost invariably wrong, regardless of the context in which they are made.

  10. I think they can get worse — I know, because they are worse where I work (and other places, where tutorials are now “self-directed teaching exersizes” — I will check what UQ is currently doing in the above mentioned course to see what is going on at present). I personally didn’t think Go8s would go so low, however (perhaps they will).

    Compare what I had above with how many community colleges work in the US, which is (a) get adjunct with PhD to teach from a book; (b) think up some simple assessment; (c) do the marking themselves; (d) run all the tutorials. This no different in terms of quality to what is happening in Aus. It is possibly better because the adjunct is likely to be better than a PhD student. Some places in Aus now get part-time teaching only positions (either formally or informally) because adjuncts that just teach are better for some things.

    If we want to go to the lowest level in Aus, here’s a comparison with how the the online courses at the private arm of the university where I work run: Someone with some knowledge develops a face-to-face course and assessment (this is generally fine). This gets given to the online group, who generally have no knowledge at all of the content. They develop online “notes”. This generally consists of copying the page numbers from the books and anything in the course handouts they can scavenge (they appear to have no skills in, for example, simple programming, so there are no demonstrations for things that really need it). Since most tutorials are designed for face-to-face learning, these are entirely scrapped. Someone doing a PhD is then employed to run the course. Because there are no tutorials, each week they post a “question” and ask students to comment. About 5-10% do. This course is run 4 times per year, and the person that developed the face-to-face course gets 20 hours per year to “supervise” the online course, which is about enough time to fill in the administrative forms. Not surprisingly, its hard to see how students in these courses get anything like that which those doing the face-to-face ones get. As far as I’m aware, there is also no external help (i.e., help centre they could go to if they were having problems with maths or literacy).

    I’d personally rather have the community college teaching than this.

  11. If we want to go to the lowest level in Aus, here’s a comparison with how the the online courses at the private arm of the university where I work run

    At this point, we are definitely in agreement. It’s this kind of thing that the reform package will encourage, not an Australian version of Wellesley

  12. I really don’t want to see a full blown progression to the current US higher education system; heck, not even what they had in the 90’s. I also don’t think it is good for people to be saddled with the large debt now, for as the proportion of people with such debt increases, the repayments reduce what they would otherwise use on feeding the future economic activity of this country. At some point, a future government will be forced to take some action, perhaps making the repayment period much shorter, or making the estate liable for the remaining debt in event of premature death, or increasing the interest rate applied to the outstanding loan. The possibility of increased middle-class welfare arises (as a means of off-setting the typical HE debt), too; it would be pretty tragic to be using the tax system like that. Whatever happens, it will cause some problems all around.

    When we get to the effects upon the academic offerings, I struggle to see how what might be good for the Go8 as cash-generating machines, is necessarily good for Australia’s higher education of students to acceptable levels. It is easy to dream up ways of cutting labour costs out of the teaching equation—just don’t mention the concomitant drop in quality of experience, or quality in the material. I’m sure that there is some benefit to having MOOG courses as a means of wide dis-semination of some special interest topics for which this kind of teaching is well suited. Just because some topics fit the mold, it doesn’t follow that an entire course can be taught that way with acceptable uptake of the material.

    The difficulty which is an obvious one is that the student entering the higher education sector is making a long term commitment based on little prior experience of the thing they are (deferring their) paying to get. By the time they have figured it out, they are so far beyond the point of no return that they either get that parchment, or be saddled with most of the debt and less potential earning power, regardless.

  13. Of course, changing technology does change how you do things at university, particularly in large units.

    For our large first year unit (~900 students), we use a commercial online assignment system. Its very good. It has some brilliantly constructed questions.

    But we don’t have tutorials. We have tutors available for an hour each day. More importantly we have online forums (rather like this one) where students can ask questions. Other students can answer, but we pay a tutor to answer questions, and lecturers also chip in when they feel like it. From next year we’ll be recording answers, like the Khan academy. But the point is that students get answers to their questions quickly. Much better than waiting for a weekly tute.

    Our lectures are recorded, and by the end of semester the number attending is only about 30%. And not all of the others are watching the recorded lectures. And our lecturers are pretty good. Or mostly they are.

    The lecturer notes are online. But the labs are still real labs, and they are compulsory.

    Anyway, the point is that what made perfect sense 40 years ago does not make sense now. But you have to think it through, and actually provide a good educational experience. And not just what some big wig thinks will work.

  14. I started University part-time in 1986, in the very year that the so-called ‘Higher Education Contribution Scheme’ (HECS) was introduced by then ‘Labor’ Education Minister Susan Ryan.

    Few of even the staunchest opponents of HECS back then foresaw how much further the Australian tertiary sector was to be corrupted and commercialised in subsequent decades. Now, in 2014, on top of massive mortgage repayments or rent, today’s students face a lifetime of indebtedness from tertiary fees.

    If we cast our eyes around the world it isn’t hard to find evidence that the claimed economic imperative to commercialise education is a myth.

    As one example, the Syrian government, which has been so vilified in the news media, unlike the United States, Great Britain and Australia, provides free university education for all its citizens.

  15. Masslectures with attendance rates below 30% have always existed. Nothing to do with aledgly good online materials or whatever. A lot usually with teachaning quality or relevance of the teaching for the test.

  16. @John Quiggin

    Douglas Adams referred somewhere to the expression on the face of a character who had just realised that no matter how bad things are, there is absolutely no reason why they can’t keep getting worse and worse.

  17. @James

    James, your memory is at fault: the first year in which the Higher Education Contribution Scheme operated was not 1986, but 1989, and the Labor Education Minister at the time (or, if you prefer, for whatever unexplained reason, the ‘Labor’ Education Minister at the time) was not Susan Ryan but John Dawkins: Susan Ryan ceased to be Education Minister in 1987.

    Please don’t take my word for it: look it up in whatever source you consider reliable.

  18. J-D @ #20, my apologies for my mistake. This page on the Australian Parliamentary web-site confirms that what you have written is correct.

    My recollection was that I was asked to sign a form consenting to have HECS deducted from my salary as soon as I started paid work. I refused to sign along with a large number of other students. I thought that occurred in my first year of University, which I thought was 1986. In hindsight, I now realise it couldn’t have happened in 1986, so it must have been in 1989.

    The commencement of the privatisation of education with HECS, along with the privatisation of QANTAS, the Commonwealth Bank and the overall imposition of neo-liberal dogma on this country by Paul Keating and his acolytes, are all symptoms of the corruption of the Labor Party since 1975 as described by Christopher Boyce (aka “The Falcon”) on SBS Dateline on 18 Feb 2014.

  19. J-D @ #20, I mistakenly put two links in my previous response @ #21, so it’s waiting moderation, my apologies. (You were right about the year.)

    Another two aspects of how ‘Labor’ and Liberal/National Governments have further lowered our standard of living, are:

    1. Where once most workers could once expect to be trained in working hours by their employer, whether government or private, they now have to be trained in their own work time at nights or on weekends; and

    2. Career progression, which would normally have allowed a capable employee to rise to a managerial position well before retirement, no longer exists for most of the workforce.

  20. @James

    I don’t know whether you’re right about workers having less opportunity for on-the-job training and less opportunity for career advancement than used to be the case — I haven’t seen the evidence — but I’m even more curious to know which are the government actions you blame for causing this trend (if there has been such a trend).

    (Also the fact that Labor becomes ‘Labor’ while Liberal does not become ‘Liberal’ and National does not become ‘National’ makes it even more mystifying.)

  21. A number of times in my life, up until 1985, I sat for state and Commonwealth Service public entrance exams with (I estimate) at least several hundred other applicants and a high proportion (I would guess around at least 30%) including me, passed and were offered jobs. There was no need to go through soul-destroying chores including the composition of a resume and the writing of a job application for, maybe, a one in a hundred chance that I would even be interviewed, even with degrees and post-graduate qualifications.

    Quite possibly, as one who is no longer in the workforce, circumstances may not be quite as grim at this point in time, but it certainly has been in my memory of recent years – a damning indictment of the Federal government and most state governments of recent decades.

    Can you show me, J-D, where any of the state or Commonwealth public services offer such careers to large numbers of High School graduates? Certainly not here.

    I know that others, who finished high school at the same time as me, were offered jobs by private companies. Those jobs included on-the-job training and career structure.

    Where do such career opportunities exist today for high school graduates?

    J-D asks:

    I’m even more curious to know which are the government actions you blame for causing this trend

    Clearly if those Commonwealth Public Service and state public service career opportunities which were available to me are no longer available, it must be the consequence of decisions made by the neo-liberal Federal Governments of Hawke, Keating and Howard and like-minded state governments. In all likelihood, private industry industry followed that example and did not lead, but I truly don’t know.

    (BTW, Professor Gigging, post #21 is still awaiting moderation. Perhaps, I should re-post?)

  22. Apologies for the misspelling of your name as “Professor Gigging”, Professor Quiggin. Please feel welcome to delete post #24. I can re-post.

  23. @James

    I have a feeling you’re right about the abolition of the public service entry exams, both Federal and State, although I would want to double-check before committing myself on the point. But suppose it’s true. It does mean the cutting off of one procedurally straightforward avenue for entering a career, so it makes that a more cumbersome and tedious process (and harder for people like me who respond well to exam conditions, although perhaps not so for the people who respond badly to them), but by itself it has no effect one way or the other on the opportunities for career advancement once you’re in, nor or the availability of on-the-job training; and it also has no effect one way or the other on how people get into non-government careers, which was never based on anything resembling the public service exams.

    So ‘the public service exams have been abolished; therefore, less on-the-job training is available’ doesn’t make sense, and neither does ‘the public service exams have been abolished; therefore, less career progression exists’.

  24. Ironically, Paul Keating, who did more than anybody to bring about today’s insane over-credentialised privatised jobs and education market didn’t even finish his own secondary education. Whilst, I think Keating’s skills and merit have been highly over-rated, his example demonstrates that if even if you lack formal qualifications you may still have the necessary skills for a job.

    J-D @ #26 wrote:

    … it makes that a more cumbersome and tedious process (and harder for people like me who respond well to exam conditions, although perhaps not so for the people who respond badly to them) …

    I think those that failed to get a good enough mark in public service entrance exams would have, in the past, been far more likely to find satisfactory alternative careers than what is on offer today: MacDonalds and other fast food franchises, casual, non-unionised work – all through a shambolic system of private job-placement agencies in place of the old Commonwealth Employment Service.

    J-D wrote:

    So ‘the public service exams have been abolished; therefore, less on-the-job training is available’ doesn’t make sense, and neither does ‘the public service exams have been abolished; therefore, less career progression exists’.

    The reason that many government workers, in my experience, find it necessary to spend evenings and weekends studying at their own expense, is that is the only way they see that their career can advance.

    Another problem for many is that the supposed merit-based systems for job advancement, which have replaced the older seniority based systems, are often abused by managers so that many workers miss out unfairly.

    In previous years, that wasn’t necessary for career advancement. I think we should also question of what actual value much of the training at tertiary institutions is for the work performed. Even capable tertiary institutions would not find it easy to teach useful skills for a work environment.

    The real goal of Keating’s ‘reforms’ was to serve the local and global elites at the expense of ordinary Australians, and future generations.

  25. @James

    Maybe I have misunderstood what you are saying, but it seems as if you are saying that all sorts of things are now much worse than they used to be (which is probably true, but it’s equally likely that, at the same time, all sorts of other things are now much better than they used to be), and that so it must be because of changes made by governments that things have got worse. But that doesn’t follow. Things getting worse and things getting better both happen all the time, and always have, and sometimes it’s because of changes made by governments, but sometimes it isn’t.

  26. @bjb

    If you look at large classes in university nowadays, they are largely online. And at some point people will realise that there should be different fees for different units. Because at the moment the students who do ACCT101 (particularly the ones who fail) subsidise the rest of the faculty.

    It should also be noted that many students are making the decision to turn traditional units into online units by not attending lectures and just watching the recordings. And these are conscientious students. The slack ones don’t go to lectures and don’t watch the recordings.

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