Plan B

Now that the Senate has rejected Pyne’s university deregulation plan, the obvious question is, what is Plan B? The first, negative answer: there is no acceptable plan that will deliver what the advocates of deregulation wanted, namely a highly stratified system, catering to a smaller minority of the population than at present, and topped by high-status institutions comparable to Yale and Harvard. That’s the US model and, as a system for educating young people, as opposed to generating research and reproducing a tiny elite, it’s been a miserable failure.

The correct way to think about this is to begin with the core objective of the process: to provide young Australians with post-school education that fits them for work in a modern economy and life in a modern society. That leads to two main principles

* A single system encompassing both universities and post-school technical education with easy flow between the two
* Uncapped access with an objective of (near) universal participation in some form of post-school education
* As with school education, the aim should not be stratification by quality, but the provision of a high-quality education for all, with resource allocation based on educational needs, not institutional history or individual wealth

I’ll leave aside, for the moment, the problems of the TAFE sector, though these are, I think, more urgent and difficult than those of the universities.

The big problem with what I’m proposing is that it will require more money for undergraduate education. That’s because the existing system relies on a mixture of student payments (through HECS), government funding and a cross-subsidy from fee-paying overseas students. There’s no substantial scope to get more money from overseas students, so the more domestic students the more thinly that cross-subsidy is spread. Similarly, although more government funding is merited, maintaining existing funding on a per-student basis while expanding numbers is probably too much to hope for. However, a clear focus on the core goal of universal post-school education would help a lot, though it necessarily poses some tough choices.

Broadly speaking, the goal I’m thinking about is to maintain existing teaching resources per student, while expanding access to cover a steadily increasing proportion of the population.

Some ideas are listed below (over the fold)

* Ban advertising and marketing activities directed at domestic students. All Australian universities currently spend large sums on advertising, mainly in their home city markets. The ads are invariably vapid and uninformative, of the kind that is supposed to raise “brand awareness”. All they do is shuffle those students ill-informed enough to be swayed by such nonsense from one institution to another, leaving all with less resources to do the actual job of teaching.

* Separating teaching and research funding, and relying more on teaching-focused positions. The ideal that all university teachers should be active researchers worked well when higher education was confined to an elite, but it’s been problematic ever since the mass expansion of the 1970s and particularly since the end of the binary system (under which the teaching-focused assumption applied at the institutional level).

* Tightening the focus of HECS to its core goals, for example by capping the amount that can be borrowed under HECS-HELP schemes for professional education and limiting access for private providers, where abuse has been common. This would enable the effective subsidy for undergraduate students to be increased.

* Constraining institutions that undermine the cross-subsidy from overseas students (and often act as immigration rackets). The typical example is an inner-city “campus” of a regional university, catering almost entirely to overseas students. I’d suggest a requirement that domestic students in a given course of study should receive at least the same resources per student as are provided in offshoot campuses like this.

* A modest, say 15 per cent, increase in HECS fees. This would still leave fees far below the lowest levels contemplated under deregulation. An increase in fees, as an alternative to capping places, is justified, in my view, because capped access provides an effective subsidy to students who get in at the expense of those who don’t.

Finally, I’ll make some observations about the organizational structure of the university system. The bodies claiming to represent part or all of the university system, notably Universities Australia and the Go8, have performed disastrously badly throughout this exercise. In my view, there is no justification for the existence of a group like the Go8 any more than if a group of public high schools serving relatively wealthy areas formed their own group to lobby for more funding. Even if such a group were justified in principle, the appalling shoddiness of the arguments put up by the leaders of this group provide a self-refutation of its claims to excellence. Obviously, the principle of freedom of association means such groups can’t be stopped from forming, but I’d urge governments to treat them as the rent-seeking lobbyists they are.

As for Universities Australia (the dishonest renaming applied to what used to be the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee(, this episode has shown the weakness of treating universities as synonymous with their chief executives. The much-repeated claim that “all universities support deregulation” was shown to carry zero political weight when it translated to “39 (later 38, and then even fewer) Vice-Chancellors support deregulation”. The sector would do far better if it was represented by a body that had a claim to speak for the entire university community rather than a handful of senior officials.

62 thoughts on “Plan B

  1. “Separating teaching and research funding, and relying more on teaching-focused positions”

    You mean creating a research-only sub-section within the University with researchers “freed” from the obligations of teaching. In the sciences we used to have this. It was called the CSIRO.

    If university employees are absolved from their teaching responsibilities, they should relinquish their titles of “Professor” and be appropriately renamed “Researchers”.

    Alternatively, we create an über-university system, where the current model to obtain a bachelor degree becomes another level of the school-system (primary, secondary, tertiary) and higher degrees such as Masters or PhD are for the “quaternary education” system.

  2. Titles like Doctor and Professor are an anachronism, in my view. Of course, I’m not going to give mine up until everyone else does, but I’d be happy to see them go.

  3. I understand your post is in response to our current situation, but don’t we need reform (without quotation marks) that requires ideals?

    Upping the fees by 15 per cent doesn’t really strike me as modest, equitable, or productive. OTOH, wouldn’t introducing incentives via lower fees for those who get high grades raise standards?

    Could we perhaps have a model that treats first year as an experiment with low fees, but only those who achieve a certain grade get to pay minimal fees (say 25% of the standard fee) for all other years? Then those who fall below the standard have the option of repeating once, going to TAFE, or some other option.

    If you’ve done a post on your ideal system and I haven’t read it, would you mind adding a link?

  4. The fundamental issue Australia needs to address is to ensure that all children have the opportunity to maximize their educational and social skills. I know of no study which shows that innate ability is correlated with social class. Hence it is in the country’s interest to ensure that even the most socially disadvantaged have a chance. It is the skill level of its population than will ensure we have a prosperous future. In the long run iron ore and coal will not.

    Consider the AFL. It is my understanding that the League has observers all around the country noting the potential of kids to play football. They also track these kids over time. To see the wide range of players’ origin (now including overseas) is evidence of the success of this strategy. Thus we have a role model; we just need to apply it.

  5. Some universities have offered their staff “teaching only” positions, but with so many teaching hours that staff taking up these roles would probably burn out fairly quickly. So if we are to have teaching only positions, they need to have a realistic teaching load.

    I work in a school of physics at a university, so my comments apply to physics. At every level, you need teachers who understand the subject well enough. There are physics teachers in high schools who aren’t good enough at physics. In first year level units at uni, specialist teachers make sense. But for all higher years, I’d favour having researchers doing the teaching. You need to understand stuff at a deeper level than you are teaching at. That’s not too hard at first year level, but it is at higher levels.

    Anyway, at the teaching coalface, we just need a bit more money. But to get it by extending the elitist private school model into the university sector would be a travesty. But of course it fits Liberal thinking perfectly.

  6. When I walk through campuses, I see new buildings sprouting up everywhere, and massive floods of students.

    The larger campuses seem to enrol hundreds of students, who receive something like 3 hours lecture, plus 1 hr tutorial per subject.

    How much does a lecturer’s prep, plus presentation, plus on costs, amount to?

    How many students are in first year economics, and later years?

    What would be a cost recovery price for the necessary portion of a lecturers time?

  7. @Ivor
    The economist has an interesting take on this. the article also shows the increase in private college fees compared to public.

    google college-america-ruinously-expensive-some-digital-cures-are-emerging-log

    With the neocons pushing for privatisation and citing the success of Harvard and Stanford, they always neglect to note that UC Berkeley is a public institution, and Oxford and Cambridge are also (technically). They also neglect to note the failure of lower ranked private universities, as JQ often points out.

    @John Brookes
    I have lectured only a few semesters at university level but I found that every time it added a huge amount to my research knowledge. I lament the move away from teaching for academics, with the research only position being viewed as the more prestigious. I find teaching an extremely rewarding pursuit. I also enjoy research. Why should the two be seperated when they are inextricably linked.

  8. I have no expertise in the subject and no barrow to push. I believe university/tertiary education should be made as widely available as possible, and for “free” (to the students) as far as possible. Of course the teaching staff must be properly remunerated.

    Having made that clear:

    University lectures always seemed to me to be about the lecturer talking at a room with any number of students in it. There wasn’t necessarily any need for student interaction. This may sound heretical, but couldn’t lectures be ‘livestreamed’ and recorded for everyone to watch at their own pace in their own time? They could even be made available to the public online for free – of course the enrolled students would still have to do tutorials, exams and practical work to get their degrees – but it couldn’t hurt to have all university lectures in all fields available on the net to some extent. Students could pause and play back the bits they needed to or ‘drop in’ on other universities lectures on a similar topic to get greater depth of understanding.

    It would be like a book library in the sense that anybody could have access but that wouldn’t qualify them to practice in the field.

    Such a system could save a huge amount of money, possibly increase the general knowledge of the public and result in better informed and educated graduates – maybe?

  9. @Megan
    Megan, your idea is not new, and people and corporations have been trying to apply it for years and years now. (Not to mention this old-fangled book thingy that people used to learn out of, whatever happened to it?)
    Look up “Moocs” for instance.
    The problem is that merely observing a lecture on a screen is not quite as good as listening to and then asking questions of a lecturer. They can form part of a wider course with other modes of learning and interacting with the subject, but they are not a substitute for actual university courses, as people keep finding.

    Moreover, such a model is being pushed by profit driven corporations as the answer to all education problems, but they can’t seem to make it work, pesky non-spherical humans insist on having difficulties with it.

  10. The 15 percent increase in fees, while an improvement, is way too little. It will continue the horizontal inequities evident at present, wherein smart rich people get a subsidy at the expense of dumb rich people, and smart poor people get a subsidy at the expense of dumb poor people.

    Most of the benefit of higher education is captured by the student. I’d like to see fees much higher. Happy with a HECS system to cover students, although the income-contingent repayment requirements and sub-commercial rates of interest probably need revision too.

  11. You write that universities’ domestic advertising is ‘invariably vapid and informative’. I think you meant ‘invariably vapid and uninformative’.

    Doesn’t the logic that supports the idea of a ban on domestic advertising and marketing equally support the idea of a ban on international advertising and marketing by individual institutions? — by that I mean, marketing campaigns saying ‘Study at UQ [or whichever institution it might be]’ being replaced by marketing campaigns saying ‘Study at university in Australia’ (these being conducted not by institutions individually but on a consortium basis).

  12. We could always remove fossil fuel subsidies, accelerated depreciation, negative gearing and also stop getting involved in wars half way round the world that are not our business. That would free up 15 to 20 billion dollars for universities. That would certainly make a difference to the tertiary education budget.

  13. Prof Q. I’m interested in your second dot-point, teaching-focused positions. I always thought that part of the reason university professors are (usually) so effective is that their ongoing research obliges them to stay up-to-date and actively participate in their field.

    You got your PhD in the late 1980s. If you had then gone into a teaching role with no research responsibility, do you think you’d be as knowledgeable today about developments in economics over the last 25 years or so? Would you be as good at teaching in 2015 if you’d had no incentive (or paid work hours) to research since the late 80s?

  14. Matt, being “up to date” in a field is overrated. New research results are usually wrong; it takes many years to sift out the good 10% from the bad 90%. If you want to see this first-hand, read some research papers from 10 years ago. You’ll be surprised by how much of what you read will have been refuted since.

    In any case, teaching requires very different skills to research. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the times I’ve had classes delivered by active practitioners, I’ve come away disappointed. They tend not to understand what it’s like to learn new ideas in their field, and there are frequent ego issues, as well.

    There is this idea in academia that publishing research qualifies you to do all kinds of unrelated things, like teaching and administration. Nothing could be further from the truth. It would help a great deal if educational insititutions let go of the organisational structures of 200 years ago, and embraced the idea that academics are just employees of an organisation with the specific goal of educating the next generation. Unfortunately, I know that a lot of academics won’t want to take direction from non-academics, so it’s a reform unlikely to happen.

  15. @guthrie

    The problem is that merely observing a lecture on a screen is not quite as good as listening to and then asking questions of a lecture

    With big 1st year and 2nd year subjects there are no questions. The lecturer speaks while putting up lecture notes on a screen. The students in attendance sit and listen. Increasingly the lecturers speak to near-empty lecture theatres, because the lectures are recorded and put online , as are the lecture notes. The value to students hearing the lectures live is approximately zero, if not negative, so they don’t go.

    With higher level subjects, that is a different matter altogether.

  16. All Australian universities currently spend large sums on advertising,

    Are the sums all that big in the scheme of things? There are 1.3 million university students in Australia. Let’s say the universities spend $130 million per year on advertising. Banning advertising would free up $100 per student, effectively nothing. Let’s say they spend three times that on advertising. It’s still effectively nothing.

    But if you want to say that banning advertising, while not making any money difference would be good in that it would help change the culture away from being businesses seeking customers, the way Macdonalds and KFC do, back to being universities, that would be a good argument.

  17. Although there has been a lot of commentary, I have never seen any actual research on the relative effects of having teachers who are also researchers (or vice versa) as opposed to teaching only and research only streams, on either student outcomes or research output. Is anyone able to supply any? This would be particularly good to know for the STEM subjects and others where research demands significant resources other than time.
    There is a fair bit of research at the schools level showing things like, for example, that teachers with STEM qualifications themselves (who have hopefully been involved in, or at leasts have some idea about, research) are better teachers, and students are motivated by getting involved in real science, e.g. through community surveys of wildlife and other such measures. I think most people would agree that students in school do better when they do a range of subjects and activities and cross fertilise. But possibly as you go higher to university there is increased benefit from specialisation and narrow focus for both students and teachers as opposed to being across teaching and research. Again, does anyone have any actual evidence to point to?

  18. @Uncle Milton
    This is a common misconception of how big lectures can and do work nowadays. Big classes can still be interactive, it depends on the lecturer. One thing that I’ve noticed is that lecturers have significantly lifted their game in the twenty years since I’ve been on the receiving end. First year classes nowadays use all those newfangled resources that were not available 20 years ago, such as doing problems “live” on a tablet and projecting the process on the screen, as well as good old-fashioned methods such as answering student questions, impromptu teaching moments, and solving of problems with class participation. For whatever reason students seem to get something out of them, even when they are also recorded (this is common practice now across the sector). Student attendance remains high right through the semester.

    Uncle Milton, if you are interested in attending a modern large first year maths class then you’re welcome to sit in on one of mine. I may even get you to do a problem on the board.

  19. One problem is that teaching-focused positions are career suicide in the current climate. Combine such roles in departments where people are advancing by publication and research, and the workload issues John Brookes mentioned above are a recipe for workplace annoyances, as well as burn-out.

    This is a real shame, because there are many people who actually love teaching (myself included), but it’s often not a sensible choice to make. Even in my not-exactly-a-ticket-to-millions field of anthropology, it makes more sense to angle your way into applied work. You end up with more free time and – crucially for us – field experience.

    As for MOOCS and phasing out lectures – ok, there are many boring lectures out there. It is also true that good students teach themselves at least as much as you teach them. But there are real merits in contact hours, and sensible lecture design provides some of this.

    It is also a problem that the tendency is to make small courses and small classes uneconomical, because technological changes have made things like essays less reliable indicators of ability, students tend to get away with less in-depth reading, and at least in my area, tests make little sense – so actual communication with students is essential.

    I have no idea how to fix this, other than to convince Australians that it does make sense to spend substantially more money on higher ed, maybe get some governance changes at universities, where the current managerialist model seems to produce resentment, mediocre results and new stationery every six months…

  20. @Megan
    Interesting idea Megan. My last couple of years at Sydney uni were divided between a post grad diploma and attending all the ‘other’ interesting lectures that took my fancy. Universities have their ‘stars’ and SU certainly had its share back then. I have a hunch that universities could make a buck out of live-streaming to an audience that would register and pay for such access. To evenly spread the interest from such a dilettante market maybe it could go into a pool fund for sharing. I’d be prepared to pay $100 perannum.

  21. Happy with a HECS system to cover students, although the income-contingent repayment requirements and sub-commercial rates of interest probably need revision too.

    I’m not sure exactly why you regard yourself as “happy” with HECS, given that you’ve just rejected its two key elements.

  22. T. Oppermann :
    One problem is that teaching-focused positions are career suicide in the current climate. Combine such roles in departments where people are advancing by publication and research, and the workload issues John Brookes mentioned above are a recipe for workplace annoyances, as well as burn-out.

    This is an important and difficult point

  23. Teaching positions are more than career suicide: they are just marking time before entering the non-academic employment market, sadly. The old binary divide, with its CAEs (College of Advanced Education), TAFE, Institutes of Technology, and Universities, The ITs and unis being on one side of the divide, TAFE, and CAEs on the other, that old system allowed teaching-only positions to exist as career options, albeit not at universities. Once the unification happened, staff who enjoyed teaching tertiary level (i.e. post-secondary school) material found their careers rudely truncated, unless they could handle the shift to research-oriented careers. A lot of CAE staff were not PhD level, for the obvious reason that it wasn’t necessary, and this left them at a disadvantage after unification.

    The unification, as far as I could see at the time, really only served the purpose of expanding our tertiary education sector so it would look appealing as an overseas destination for study, thus gaining access to a full-fee paying student base. Perhaps that is too cynical a view. Even so, I have always felt that what matters is having access to post-secondary school education and training; quite frankly, as far as most white collar jobs go, a degree level qualification is miles too much, and the employment-readying material could easily be managed at the old CAEs. For those interested in an academic career, the university system made sense, having both teaching and research accessible, with emphasis on scholarship, not employment-readying training.

    I truly think that John Dawkins (under the Hawke ALP government of the day) made exactly the wrong decision on how to strengthen our post-secondary and tertiary education and training sector. The current system does not encourage life-long formal education, it encourages making an economic choice—as a teenager—with life-long ramifications, and making that choice once, only once, in your life; there is too large a financial burden to returning to post-secondary education having already successfully obtained a degree or diploma. This system is at loggerheads with our rapidly evolving employment ecosphere: jobs which existed twenty years ago have been innovated out of existence, so anyone who studied with those jobs in mind, would probably relish the chance to re-enter the post-secondary education and training experience, but is blocked out by financial considerations—being made redundant, for instance.

  24. I think there are a lot of benefits to attendance of live lectures. Watching a video of a lecture tends to be more dull since it’s not happening live with you there – although taking notes helps focus, talking aloud is a fairly slow way for bare information to be conveyed if you are a reasonable speed reader – so part of the positives of lectures are that they are live, with you present and can ask questions and learn from a range of different people how they will verbally or visually present content.

    Latrobe has a free video streaming site – ideas and society – i discovered in Summer because a Robert Manne talk on climate change was booked out and Melbourne uni makes videos and audio freely available for some public lectures

    I agree with others that in many cases teaching and researching are beneficial – the lecturers often move between the professors giving you an overview of general info and issues regarding the subject – with more detailed accounts of their particular research interests. So research helps the teaching be broad and specific. Non researchers would have difficulty with teaching specifically unless they did lots of research in a couple of areas just for their teaching.

  25. I think all teachers at University level benefit from carrying out research. “Teaching only” positions need to be carefully defined (Job description, evaluation, career progression etc.). However, a “flexible” mix of teaching and research should be available. This is the model employed at MIT (USA) as far as I know. Individuals nominate how much teaching and research they would like to do and they are paid and evaluated separately on each component. This assumes that the teaching role has been suitably defined, and so has the “research”. With the “one size fits all” approach currently on offer here there are many problems. It is well known that some good researchers can’t teach as well as the other way round. A flexible method leverages the strengths of each person.

    Funding should not be a problem as Ikonoklast has pointed out. All education is an investment in a critical resource and should be viewed as such. If so many other countries in the world can afford free University education, it can’t be that hard.

    Regarding the US system, there are a few things people forget. The US does have teaching only positions in institutions that offer bachelors degrees only. These are the state colleges/private colleges. Australia had these too, but then under “reforms” by Dawkins they were turned into Universities overnight. I can only guess at what was in Dawkins’ mind, mixed no doubt with all the neo-liberal Kool-aid he had imbibed. Now, we seem to be going back to that model, with TAFEs being permitted to offer Bachelors degrees, while some Universities like RMIT have a TAFE attached.

    The famous “top” Universities in the US like Harvard have huge endowments and budgets larger than those of some small countries. Such institutions are unlikely to arise again except through Government funding. Indeed, as pointed out by JQ , the University of California system is State funded. Also, the need for private donations often results in a compromise of the principle of academic independence, especially in the social sciences (e.g. Haering and Douglas).

    This brings to light another strange anomaly in Australia. The Universities here are “controlled” by the States but funded by the federal govt. Is this meaningful?

    As for the point made by PhilH, that being an academic does not endow one with expertise in all other matters: Yes and no. The present corporatised model of University governance is a complete disaster, firstly because academics suddenly become ” executives”, and secondly because so-called “professional executives” who come into University administrations treat the academics as “workers’ on the shop floor and try to organise their work for them without taking their advice. I fail to see how every dollar of fees paid by an international student finally results in barely 50 cents being available for funding the actual teaching (salaries, equipment, consumables). Bloated administrations is all I can see.

    I also think that the current (neo-liberal) notion that a University is a “business” and the student is a “customer” is complete nonsense. You have to ask: “what is the product being sold?” and no proper answer in the form of something tangible is possible. Of course there are places where you pay a fee and get your degree, but that is not what I would call a tertiary educational institution.

  26. There is already a lifetime lending cap on FEE-HELP, the scheme used by full-fee students (largely postgraduates and students at TAFEs+private colleges and universities), although the defeated Pyne bill would unwisely have removed it.

    There used to be a de facto HECS-HELP cap, in the form of a limit on how many years anyone could access Cth subsidies. Labor abolished this during their last term in office.

    A total HELP lending cap would make sense.

  27. I agree that under the current system, eschewing research for a teaching-only job will limit your prospects, but isn’t that just a reflection of the current, ineffective system? If you were to formally split staff into research and teaching work, tertiary teaching could become a specialised profession in its own right, just as with secondary teaching.

  28. Incidentally, FEE-HELP has been used by students in private higher education colleges for 10 years without the scandals afflicting the vocational sector.

    Of course the repayment by institution data the government says it is now working on will be very interesting.

  29. @Nevil Kingston-Brown

    The research on this is very mixed, and I don’t think we can confidently say that research is either positive or negative for teaching. We summarised key papers and added some of our own findings here.

  30. @Donald Oats

    employment-readying material could easily be managed at the old CAEs

    Not too many doctors, lawyers, engineers or scientists got their post-secondary education at the old CAEs.

  31. Your concerns are interesting John but it bothers me that your solutions are still only futzing around the edges of a bigger set of difficulties.

    From what I read you have not properly defined the bigger problems of the system at large but rather focused on the destruction of some older workable mechanisms which the Liberals are trashing without any plan except perhaps let the market decide (and all will be well in the best of worlds or some other Panglossian nonsense).

    From my perspective in and out of the system on the periphery for the past 40 years what I feel I am seeing is something akin to the decomposition of infrastructure that was developed in the post war period through a combination of democratization and expansion of the olde worlde sandstone university system. But like our medical system it feels like it is being pushed beyond the limits of the old model while the purpose of universities and their relationship to society more generally have been changing irrespective of the clownish management school VCs who seem to have colonised the upper echelons..

    Some of the symptoms of this deeper malaise I suggest are as follows:
    – The loss of first hand knowledge because the scale of world knowledge is now so great (and still expanding) so that the staff and time available to cover it satisfactorily is not longer there. So you get whole disciplines wiped out of universities or increasingly narrow specialization. The decline of the polymath and possibly the independent intellectual I suggest reflects the earlier stages of this process.
    – Under both Labor and Liberal we seem to losing our society’s technical and scientific expertise under the weight of managerialism (e.g. grant micromanagement) and information technology (e.g. Moodle) generated bureaucracy. Thus the latter is seen as less worth funding though student numbers are up. Perhaps this is so however I wonder whether its possible to maintain a high tech society without a large buckets of the technically minded.

    [ An aside to this is that I have found once you move out of a research university environment your brain ossifies and while gutting the research system wont impact teaching immediately, in the long term it will likely lead to dumming down as academics lose contact with evolving disciplines while clinging to their jobs in the face of being made irrelevant to the new world. I’ve seen this repeatedly with brilliant but highly specialised CSIRO scientists cast on the heap because the system has passed them by]

    – Demands for greater efficiencies have led to there being far larger classes and far less time for idea exchange outside of one’s department. Siloing if you like. A temporary fix was to sack almost all the technical support staff of old but I think this is catching up with those remaining survivors. The direct supervision/interaction with students of old seems to be disappearing and you see this in laboratories where the old skills are too often absent.

    So by all means attack the coalition (I have no criticism there) but recognise there is a deeper problem that is being ignored probably because the people who would develop such critiques are internal to the problem and hence have had their perspective compromised.

  32. @John Quiggin

    Depends on what you mean by problematic. With law, the problem is that the study of law is only very loosely connected to the practice of law. In fact I’d say that what is taught is closer to the research side than the vocational side, though this varies by law school.

    With medicine, it’s not a simple research-teaching dichotomy. It’s a research-teaching-clinical trichotomy.

  33. @Andrew Norton
    I’ve looked quickly at your findings and I’m not surprised that the correlation between research and teaching is not clear. As stated earlier, in any department you will find very good teachers particularly at 1st and 2nd year levels who struggle to even finish a Ph.D., while there are highly productive researchers who move rapidly up the scales who can hardly explain anything. And in the middle are those who do both. Averaging over these will give you a correlation close to zero.

    I also remember the Course Evaluation Questionnaire (CEQ) which you have used. One of the objections I have always had to this is that it is administered shortly after the student graduates.
    I have had students e-mail me years after graduating, telling me how useful was such and such thing that I had taught them. One even asked for a fresh copy of the lecture slides as he had lost the old ones. Such students would surely fill in a very different CEQ after this realisation.

    We also used to have our own questionnaire at the end of each “unit” which the student filled out anonymously, so that the lecturer concerned could get some idea of how things had gone. Once the CEQ became “important” we changed our own questionnaire to mimic the CEQ one. We also spent more time explaining the questions and what they were intended to evaluate.
    Did our departments scores on the CEQ improve? You bet they did. Were the students being taught better? I really don’t know. Were they having a better “course experience”? Apparently yes, whatever that is.

    I think, when we are discussing tertiary education, we are operating at the limits of what little we know about teaching and learning. And what we know will very likely be different in different subject areas. Clearly STEM subjects and the social sciences are different, and again the creative arts will be different and so on. We need a highly nuanced approach which politicians of any stripe are unlikely to deliver. Leaving it to “the market” is probably the worst thing you can do. The solution has to be achieved by a consensus in the academic community, and may require different approaches in different areas. In the corporatised structures we have today, that is unlikely.

  34. All I saw from Christopher Pyne was a deeply disgraceful attempt to put a loaded gun to the collective heads of the universities, and of course the cross-bench, by baldly asserting the NCRIS research quantum was inextricably linked with the deregulation in the bill presented: not one night after making this wild claim several more times, he split the bill into two separate ones! From the sword of Damocles to the sword that cut through the Gordian knot, what a man, what a plan. And now? More Plan 9 from Outer Space than Plan B, I’d have thought.

    Uncle Milton, I did allow for some professions to be better served by university education with a degree (or post-graduate options); I didn’t specifically rule that out AFAICT. Some areas might be better suited to being split across the old divide, which did once occur for teaching/education, I think.

  35. You are right about research and teaching. I see daily academics a la sheltered workshop style who want to ‘research’ not teach. In the 3rd rate uni where I work (sessional) they are trying to upstatus themselves to seem like they are real academics – and avoid the annoying task of teaching. Get another job I say. Have a few quality research / teaching unis, the rest quality teaching only with a nice flow between tafe type stuff and degree type stuff. Too much ‘research’ culture is making the scene super fragile and is not serving the user. Basic User eXperience stuff here, as usual.

  36. Some thoughts from someone at the coalface on the current state of university practice:

    * at least in our discipline (and I expect most) learning happens in tutorials, labs, and in the process of students completing assessable tasks, not in traditional lectures. Despite this, much of the academic workforce continues to believe that learning happens when they say things to a (declining) proportion of students and a microphone recording the lecture.
    * You can’t interact with a lecture theatre of 50+ students.
    * The current trend for “Flipped classrooms” recognizes this and encourages information transfer of the kind that traditionally happened (or more often than not didn’t happen) in lectures to occur at a time of the student’s convenience using digital technology; scheduled university activities are all about interacting with peers and instructors on the material.
    * That said, the teaching staff who students will interact with most of the time, tutors and lab demonstrators (FWIW, I dislike the distinction in my field, it’s a hangover from the days when “computers” were a scarce resource) are conducted by a casualised workforce with stuff-all training in teaching, and high turnover.
    * Quality control on course content is haphazard at best. The major metric used by university hierachies is student satisfaction, which I contend is almost useless as a measure of quality. A poor student rating does indicate a quality problem; however, I have witness first-hand examples where the converse doesn’t apply.
    * As a number of people have said, there isn’t that strong a correlation between research and teaching ability; however, being a teaching-only academic is a road I wouldn’t like to go down. Teaching is a high-wire act, and I see a *lot* of burnout among colleagues, and it’s not from doing too much research.
    * University administration continues to expand into the never-never, for no purpose other than self-aggrandisement apparent to us peons.
    * The ARC and NHMRC grants process, conservatively, costs about 30% of what they award in grants when you take into account the value of applicant and reviewer time. This is insane.

  37. there are too many universities in Australia – 39 is excessive for a country like Australia.

    either some universities need to be merged or down rated to ‘teaching universities’ with no research.

    Also, I do not understand why the Australian public is subsidising a religious institution – Australian Catholic University. While there maybe some basis to fund teaching like Catholic schools – there is absolutely no basis to fund ACU’s research capability. The Catholic church is already exempt from taxes and as such should not receive gov’t subsidies to boost its own reputation.

  38. JQ, what do you make of the claim (often bandied around by supporters of higher or deregulated fees) that government subsidised higher education is regressive? My sense is that it is probably true in abstract, but that the regressiveness is overblown given several decades of fee-increases and the need to factor at least some public benefit. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

  39. John,

    While international students and full fee domestics provide the biggest rates of cross subsidy, domestic undergraduates also on average cross-subsidise research. This was shown in the Base Funding Review (they argued 6-10%) and surely since the demand driven system the rate is at the high end, if not increased. If you take all student revenue (grants, fees, etc) and subtract all non-research spending, you get a cross-subsidy in 2012 of around $3bn. I think Senate committee inquiry was right to say the first step is to re-do the Base Funding Review. Universities should be much more transparent with what they spend public and student money on.

  40. I’ve probably said it before, but the Libs reasoning is obvious.

    Once upon a time, many careers began directly from school, but now its mostly after university. So that expensive private school, and the connections made there, are not optimal in helping the sons and daughters of the wealthy and ambitious get ahead in life. Universities used to be the almost exclusive domain of the well-to-do, but that has changed, so there is a need to create exclusive, better funded universities to give the children of privilege a leg up.

    Dress it up any way you like, but that will be the effect, and it is intentional.

  41. In the US, they are thinking about the fact that there is a sh*tload of student debt out there, and a substantial chunk of it is of the doubtful debt variety. The student debt is the second largest source of (personal) debt, behind the mortgage.

  42. This is worth a read in light of the Pyne scheme and the Abbott purging of research in 2013/2014, hiring freezes and surprise efficiency dividends (= cut to funding in real terms) on top of existing efficiency dividends. Noone expects it to be easy in a competitive field; however, science is also meant to be collaborative, or at least that shouldn’t be an ideal instead of reality. I truly am impressed with the research capabilities of some people, and yet if they didn’t have to keep fighting for mere scraps of funding, how much more they could do. It’s a weird system.

  43. JQ, I agree with you that the university system needs a significant overhaul that puts greater emphasis on actual teaching. Why do we need HECS at all? There is something called taxation that is generally used to fund this sort of investment. In Sweden they appear to have a reasonable tertiary education system that provides “near universal access”. The Swedes have no tuition fees and provide support for students living expenses from a mixture of loans and grants.

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