Some post-school education bodies we could do without

First, there’s the Australian Skills Quality Authority, which is supposed to regulate the quality of vocational education. AQSA’s performance makes the Greyhound Racing Queensland Board look good

In 2012, when I wrote a report on vocational education, it was common knowledge that the for-profit education sector was comprehensively rotten, particularly in Victoria where the push to privatisation began. This ABC report suggests that ASQA was on the case. But three years later, the only thing that has changed is that the rot has spread nationwide. All the big names in the industry – Evocca, Aspire and so on – are engaged in practices like using laptops as inducement to recruit low-income students who have no chance of either completing their courses or repaying their HECS-HELP debts. There’s no surprise here – it’s exactly the business model of US for-profits like the University of Phoenix.

The right solution is to stop giving any public money to for-profit education businesses. But, in the current market liberal environment that would probably fall afoul of competition policy. So, my suggestion is to cap the amount any publicly funded institution can spend on marketing to Australian students. Ideally the cap would be well below the amount currently being wasted by universities and other public providers competing against each other with our money. That in turn would be far below the rake-off being taken by the recruiters on whom the for-profits depend.

In the meantime, AQSA is a proven failure. It needs to be scrapped and its functions turned over to a body with some real teeth and a willingness to defend the interests of students and the public purse, rather than being a captive of the industry it is supposed to regulate. A joint investigation by the ACCC and the Auditor-General would be a good start.

Next, Universities Australia, the Go8 and the other Vice-Chancellors’ clubs. Fresh from the fee deregulation debacle, they’ve turned their attention to the question of how we should allocate research training places (such as PhD programs).

In the case of fee deregulation, the VC groups were uniformly wrong, not to mention tin-eared. This time, we have the odd spectacle of the Go8 directly opposing UA, even though one is a subset of the other. The Go8 want to stop departments with poor research records, based on the “Excellence in Research Assessment” from getting funding for research training places. UA is opposed, making the point that ERA is not “fit for purpose”.

In the abstract, I have some sympathy for both sides of this argument but in practice it just looks like special pleading on both sides – UA wanting to keep something for all its members, and the Go8 lobbying for special treatment.

But the real problem is the one I identified in the deregulation debacle. The VC groups claim to speak for universities, but exclude all but 40-odd of the people who work and study in them. In the present case, wouldn’t the perspectives of research students and the academics who supervise them be more useful than those of VCs and administrators? To repeat, we need to replace UA with a body that represents students and staff as well as top management.

And, while we’re at it, how about dropping the linguistic abomination of names like Universities Australia[1]? Even knowing nothing else about the group, a name like this reeks of the worst kind of 1990s managerialism.

[^1] Are there any grammar experts who can give a name to the part of speech represented by “Australia” in this title? It’s not known to Standard English, I’m pretty sure.

39 thoughts on “Some post-school education bodies we could do without

  1. I think the grammar is that Australia is an adjective in this usage, and it is more like Latin Grammar – which used to be taught as English grammar since English had no grammar of its own and when it got one it wasn’t so adaptable as Latin grammar – so it is sort of like the term Australia Felix which was a term used by Major Thomas Mitchell for area in Western Victoria, then by Henry Handell Richardson.

    So Australia is an adjective modifying the plural noun Universities – and then the two words together become a compound noun I guess, as the name of the body.

  2. I would have just said it’s a proper noun (as part of the proper noun “Universities Australia”. My office is swarming with Linguists (it happens in Spring) so let me check.

    Official word is “I’d call it a noun, but it doesn’t make sense. It’s like “Sausage Fish Australia Duck” – they’re all proper nouns if that’s what you want to call your company.”

  3. In fairness to Universities Australia, as a name, we also have Cricket Australia, Tennis Australia, Bowls Australia, Birdlife Australia, Screen Australia etc. There are probably hundreds of them. All of these are shortened versions of earlier names. Cricket Australia was originally the “Australian Board of Control for International Cricket”.

    On the Vice Chancellors, they just don’t want higher fees as such, they just want more money, and don’t care where it comes from. They’d be equally happy with a wealth tax on the 1%, selling children into slavery, including their own, or selling methamphetamine, provided they get the revenue.

  4. Uncle Milton :
    On the Vice Chancellors, they just don’t want higher fees as such, they just want more money, and don’t care where it comes from. They’d be equally happy with a wealth tax on the 1%, selling children into slavery, including their own, or selling methamphetamine, provided they get the revenue.

    All whilst many of the more esteemed universities sit on substantial investment portfolios.

  5. @Troy Prideaux

    The financial pressures on universities are real, and while they can always trim a bit of fat here and there (such as their marketing budgets) they do need to find more revenue from somewhere.

  6. @Uncle Milton

    I don’t entirely agree. They all need more money, but quite a few would prefer to see themselves as entrepreneurs rather than public servants. The people chosen to represent the Go8 illustrate this.

  7. @John Quiggin

    I would say VCs have lexicographic preferences. While they might like the idea of being entrepreneurial, and sometimes they might even espouse some scholarly values, they always choose the option that gives them the most money.

  8. I think the private education providers should be more regulated.

    I have told this story before, but once I was talking to a taxi driver and he said his hospitality course he had completed cost about $25,000, which is very expensive and more than my commonwealth supported masters.

    On the other hand we have a Continuing Education in town and I think the partial government funding for some courses is appropriate.

    But there should be a regulatory council that effectively stops organisations over charging for their courses and using inducements like free computers and getting government funding.

    In terms of the investment portfolios there is a student group who is trying to get the university to divest from its substantial investments in companies that are involved in the fossil fuel industry. But I went to a talk and one of the professors said that a divestment strategy needs to be more justifiable than the one at ANU which seemed to divest from some fossil fuel companies and not others arbitrarily, which drew criticism.

    Also the University Council is releasing for comment the Charter of Sustainability and Climate later this year, which should be interesting. I went to a talk about that and someone said that Monash University is introducing a similar sort of thing as well, which is not too surprising as I think the Vice-Chancellors of Monash and Melbourne universities are married so I guess they exchange ideas on how to best run universities.

    The talk on the sustainability charter was hosted by the divestment group and the National Tertiary Education Union. The NTEU could represent staff of universities quite well in these debates.

  9. I’m waiting to see a massive class action against the for-profits by previously enrolled students who have accumulated debts on the basis of not being able to complete courses for which any reasonable person would have clearly identified they had no capability or requisite training to justify their enrolment. I also dont understand why the ACCC has not undertaken and pursued these organisations for unconscionable conduct in their baiting and enrolment practices. Even rationale individuals have a mistaken view of their own abilities and I’m sure the instutions go to no lengths to address those mistaken beliefs or provide a realistic representation of the course’s difficulty.

  10. @Aardvark

    You could say the same about law schools in our (cough, cough) not for profit universities who enrol students in $100,000 degrees with the implicit promise that they will get jobs at big end of town law firms. But such jobs exist for only a small fraction of law school graduates, with the rest getting jobs (if they are lucky) with Dennis Denuto on salaries just a little north of the dole.

  11. the linguistic abomination of names like Universities Australia

    Reminds me of the term “Transport Australia” that was created many years ago and for which someone pointed out what a linguistic abomination that was too. At least the word “Universities” can’t be mistaken for a verb, if that’s any help.

  12. So, the grammar is that it’s two nouns, with one (Australia) in apposition to the other (Universities). The noun in apposition describes or limits the other. The unusual thing is that the noun in apposition is second, whereas normally it would be first.

    It’s very common as a construction in English, “red balloon”, “salad sandwich”, “chicken icecream”. Even “ice cream” was once such a phrase.

    And, no, the noun in apposition is not an adjective, demonstrated by the fact that most of these nouns will happily take an adjectival form “reddish”, “chickeny”, “icy”.

    Grammar nerd, away!

  13. @Chris*ta

    It (“Australia”) might appear like a “noun in apposition” but I think it is a postpositive or postnominal adjective.

    When I looked for examples of nouns in apposition I could find only noun phrases. When a single noun becomes an apparent “noun in apposition” it alters the grammar. That is, the noun operates like an adjective. One can argue that grammatical categories are not always neat; especially in English which is quite a malleable language.

    The Grammarist site states;

    “Nouns sometimes function as adjectives. For example, in each of these phrases, the first word is usually a noun but here functions as an adjective modifying the second word: city government, article writer, bicycle thief, Sunday picnic, pumpkin pie.”

    Wikipedia states: “A postpositive or postnominal adjective is an attributive adjective that is placed after the noun or pronoun that it modifies. This contrasts with prepositive adjectives, which come before the noun or pronoun.

    In some languages (such as French, Spanish, Italian and Romanian) the postpositive placement of adjectives is the normal syntax, but in English it is less usual, largely confined to archaic and poetic uses (as in “They heard creatures unseen”), certain traditional phrases (such as “heir apparent”), and certain particular grammatical constructions (as in “those anxious to leave”).

    Recognizing postpositive adjectives in English is important for determining the correct plural for a compound expression. For example, because martial is a postpositive adjective in the phrase court-martial, the plural is courts-martial, the ending being attached to the noun rather than the adjective.”

    “Universities Australia” would appear to partake of the same form as “courts-martial”. It is however an awkward construction which manages to combine an archaic grammatical form with modern “speech-managerial” (if I may play the game myself).


    In the phrase “the red balloon”, “red” is an adjective. “Reddish” is a different adjective with a somewhat different meaning of “somewhat red; tending to red; tinged with red.”

  14. Uncle Milton :
    But such jobs exist for only a small fraction of law school graduates

    Specifically those that were schooled at Churchie or equivalent, socially well connected and (most likely) male.

  15. Melbourne University Private initiated the inflated VC ego syndrome in this country. Money and enrolment numbers became the criteria for excellence. The VC circle is small, competitive (on an interpersonal basis) and is dominated by persons of neoliberal persuasion. The one good thing is that the fervour is small beer compared with the situation in the UK.
    Regarding vocational training. Ask any tradesman trained under the old TAFE system what it is like to work with many of the graduates of these private institutions. The quality is so variable, often dangerous when it involves electricity.

  16. “But I went to a talk and one of the professors said that a divestment strategy needs to be more justifiable than the one at ANU which seemed to divest from some fossil fuel companies and not others arbitrarily, which drew criticism.”

    Just an additional comment on my prior comment about university’s divesting from fossil fuel companies.

    The Australian newspaper is now a support of the divestment movement and says that the Australian National University is a world thought leader and the Vice Chancellors of ANU must be very proud.

    “Leading the way: When ANU made the decision last year to divest from a small handful of fossil fuel companies, it was blasphemed and damned by an angry media (well, the AFR) over a period of months. Yet now, with each passing day, ANU looks more and more like an international thought leader — certainly not the first, but one of the global early adopters who paved the way for the divestment movement to make giant strides. Yesterday New York City mayor Bill de Blasio said he’s pushing for the city’s pension funds to divest. The state of California and its university system are divesting, along with another $2.6 trillion in funds already committed, according to Boy this movement is gaining momentum. And ANU bosses Ian Young and Gareth Evans must be feeling the quiet glow of vindication.”

  17. Ultimately it is up to the public to regain control over the public institutions of universities and to run them in the interests of the Australian public. Governance institutions need to be improved through greater democratic influence through Departments of Education- at the expense of pseudo-entrepreneurial administrators such as VCs.

    Incentives also need to change: a first useful step would be to focus universities and administrators on their educational role by removing the ability to bundle sale of access to the Australian job, housing purchase, and non-student visa markets with student places.

  18. It’s called a superfluity. Both in the sense that you don’t need to specify Australia when they are all already here and in the sense that it really isn’t Australianism binding them together anyway.

  19. “To repeat, we need to replace UA with a body that represents students and staff as well as top management.”

    A very worthwhile concept. Would the staff and students be nominated by their organisations (NTEU, CAPA, the Notional Union of Students) or would there be some other process of s/election?

  20. @Paul Norton

    The Notional Union of Students, indeed. The problem isn’t merely that student union groups are not representative of students. The real problem is that students are in and out in a few years, and have no real interest in the long term health of the tertiary education sector. In fact it is not hard to imagine how their short term interests, which are their only interests, conflict with the long term health of the sector.

  21. @Uncle Milton

    This critique applies equally to Vice-Chancellors, doesn’t it? Given a near-universal maximum of two five-year terms, most are within five years of leaving the sector for good (at least in the Go8, where they can’t move up the status hierarchy). All the VCs I’ve worked under, except the current one, have left the sector, and in most cases, that’s true of their successors as well.

  22. @John Quiggin

    Off the top of my head, the VCs at ANU, Melbourne, UWA, Qld and Monash have been VCs at other universities. There are no doubt others. I don’t know what the average time spent as a VC is, counting all VC jobs, but it has to be a lot more than the average time spent as a student.

  23. @Uncle Milton

    I am confused about these students that you speak of who have only a short term interest in eduction. Perhaps one would find these sort of students among the neo-liberal business students who don’t belong in a university anyway but I never met any of these selfish insular students when I was at Uni.

    And, it is not obvious to me how these short term only interests even if they did exist and were characteristic of students. will conflict with the long terms health of the sector.

    Can you elaborate perhaps? From my own experience, students are very interested in the long term health of the sector.

  24. @Julie Thomas

    Here is a hypothetical example. Students want fees to be as low as possible, if not lower. One way to achieve this is for universities to lower their costs. The main cost of universities is salaries. So it is in the short term interests of students for universities to pay their staff as little as possible. But it is not in the long term interests of the university sector for this to happen, because staff will leave the sector to work elsewhere, and the quality of the sector suffers. (And if an individual university tries this, then the staff don’t have to leave the sector; they just move to a different university.)

    However, this process takes time. A given cohort of students will benefit from lower fees, but not many staff will leave in the three or four years that the students are there. By the time the effects on quality take place, the students will be long gone.

    Of course, some students, especially those active in student politics, are concerned with the long term health of the sector. But, I contend, most couldn’t care less.

  25. You propose a cap on which university expenses get public funding. A fairer, more efficient and more decentralized policy would be to pay schools the graduate’s HECS repayment instead of the current flat amount. So schools that do raise their students prospects get paid, while those who do not impart employable skills get nothing. This would also improve incentives and risk-sharing in traditional universities.

  26. @Uncle Milton

    ” Students want fees to be as low as possible, if not lower.”

    See, this is your problem Uncle, you do not understand ‘students’. This short term selfish and greedy thinking that you attribute to ‘students’, can only be sustained with a lot of social engineering that convinced a few people that there is no society, only an economy.

    Fortunately this is not the case and humans and students too are more complex than you imagine, and we normal and not neo-liberal people and students do like our society and our institutions to be decent ones in which people take responsibility for their own behaviour as part of a system.

    It’s a silly position you take, that ‘students’ except for those in ‘student politics’, are motivated by a simplistic short term economic reasoning that you contend to be the case , lol. But perhaps, it has been a long time since you have interacted with any ‘students’ and are still living in the past and just faffing away with all your old prejudices so as to feel better about your inability to understand the way things are going now?

    If you are interested in explaining how it works in your world view that some students and staff don’t care about anything but using the uni for their own self-aggrandisement and others get into student politics? I’m very interested in the actual cognitive processes that underpin your judgements about human nature and why people/students make the choices they do.

    One think in particular that I find silly, is the claim you make that students benefit from lower fees, what about price signals? Is it not the case that a lower price means a lower quality product? Do students not understand the price signal?

  27. In my opinion, the simple and affordable solution is to make all tertiary education free at time of entry just as state primary and secondary education is free at time of entry.

    To pay for free tertiary education, increase taxes on incomes above a certain level. The level that would be set as the cut in point for tax increases would the average income level that employed tertiary graduates achieve after 5 years in the workforce. Then set the numbers so that this tax increase pays for the costs of making tertiary education free at the time it is undertaken. This measure would ensure that, in the long run, those who benefit from a tertiary education leading to a better income, would indeed pay for the education albeit after the fact via taxation.

    So yeah, it’s just higher taxation on upper middle income and very high income brackets supplemented probably by wealth taxes and stronger capital gain taxes. No big deal. It would be very easy and workable policy to implement IF the elite income earners of our society did not have control of most government policy by buying and suborning our major political parties.

  28. @Julie Thomas

    Students don’t want lower fees? They certainly were upset at the prospect of paying higher fees under the Pyne proposals.

    As for students understanding about quality, they do, and that was my point. They understand that if costs and fees are lowered now, they will benefit now, but quality is slow to adjust, and they will have graduated by the time the quality is lower.

  29. @Ikonoclast

    What you’ve proposed is more or less the current system. Students pay nothing upfront and have debt repayments taken out of their income as de facto additional income tax once the income reaches a certain threshold. The only real difference under your proposal is that higher income earners who didn’t go to university would also pay more tax.

  30. @Uncle Milton

    I take your point but I would also point out the significant differences. Well, you have pointed out one, namely that “higher income earners who didn’t go to university would also pay more tax”. That is a social equity positive in my proposal. The other significant difference is that it is all subsumed into the tax system “after the fact” in the administrative sense. I would submit that my proposal has less administrative overheads. It’s a simpler system, more intrinsically incorporated into the tax system proper. There is no need for the extra HECs admin and accounting superstructure.

  31. @Uncle Milton

    “Students don’t want lower fees? They certainly were upset at the prospect of paying higher fees under the Pyne proposals.”

    Yes lots of people were upset with Pyne’s higher fee proposal but that wasn’t because of the higher fees; it was because these higher fees would not have been put back into the system to make it better and more functional for students.

    Again your reasoning shows that you did not listen to or understand the point of view of those who were upset and it wasn’t the students so much as parents who do not credit Pyne or any of those men and women in Abbott’s team Australia, with the ability to raise fees in a way that would bring about a higher quality educational system for all the people in the community in which the university exists, and not just the students who attend it.

    Have you heard about the idea that the quality of the institution one graduated from can and does have a continuing weighting on the ‘value’ of one’s education even years after students leave? I understand that certain universities look good on one’s resume and others do not and I have heard that people like Julie Bishop exaggerate the study they did at prestigious institutions jsut to enhance their status.

    But how do you imagine that ‘students’ are able to evaluate the ‘quality’ of their eduction and make all the calculations that you seem to think they make? Are some students born with this ability? Where does it come from?

    Perhaps we need a lot more information to be available in our ‘society’ or our ‘economy’ to provide students with the ability or knowledge to choose realistically what they can do with an education?

    Seriously, to just announce that you think students want this and students want that, is not a good way to determine what an education system could or should be.

  32. @Uncle Milton

    A quick check suggests that for those who make it from the second tier to the Go8 (like the cases you list), the average period as VC is 10-15 years. For those who don’t, it’s probably closer to 5 than 10.

    That compares to around 6 years on average for domestic bachelors degree students who complete their degrees, and 10 years plus for those who do multiple degrees or postgraduate work. So, your claim that “time spent as a VC … has to be a lot more than the average time spent as a student” is wrong, unless you put a lot of weight on the (numerically large but unlikely to have much weight in this context) group who drop out of first year.

  33. “:Students don’t want lower fees? They certainly were upset at the prospect of paying higher fees under the Pyne proposals.”

    They were upset because they believe, like many sensible people in many other developed countries like Germany that there should be no fees for attending university. Any problem with that uncle Milton?

    Students know and understand that this is pushing tertiary education into a “user pays” model, as well as a model in which the student is the “customer” – all completely wrong and inappropriate.

    As for these predatory VCs, who move ever sideways and upward and out, need one say anything more.

  34. @totaram

    So true that there should be no fees for attending university, but there are many people who were so comprehensively indoctrinated with the neo-liberal user pays ideology that they really do believe that ‘we’ can’t afford to give all people access to things and free stuff that will make them smarter and their lives better.

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