Adam Creighton has an op-ed in the Australian this morning with a whole bunch of good and bad arguments.
Let’s start with the bad:
Australia’s universities soak up billions of dollars in public funds — $9.5 billion a year from the federal government alone — but the return to taxpayers is low. Australia, a G20 country, doesn’t have a single university in the top 30 worldwide according to The Times Higher Education Supplement 2016 rankings.
Neither do most of the the other G20 countries. In any event – is the objective of public spending on education to produce a top 30 university, or is it to actually provide students with an education? I suspect most people would think that it is the latter, and not the former. Any vice-chancellor or education minister who prioritises the former over the latter is promoting their own self-interest over the interests of students and should be removed from their position.
As for quality, the university’s Charles Perkins Centre has produced an academic paper, The Australian Paradox, written by the university’s top nutritionist, Jennie Brand-Miller, which finds a negative relationship between Australian obesity and sugar consumption. This has been robustly challenged and roundly criticised and is at odds with the vast bulk of scientific thinking. But the university and relevant journal refused to condemn it. The university, which claims it is devoted to “excellence”, says it will only withdraw research if it is formally found to exhibit “research misconduct or unlawfulness”. Being of low quality or even wrong doesn’t count.
That is an entirely appropriate decision on the part of the University of Sydney – I don’t know the research, but I’m quite sure that Adam wouldn’t want to see a situation where only officially mandated (or politically correct) research is ever published.
Universities have long lost their role as bastions of truth-seeking.
Ah, yes. The Truth.
Degrees are too often a mechanism for employers to sort applicants. This has become remarkably inefficient. The flood of additional students has put pressure on academics to lower teaching quality.
Another chestnut. I agree that (many) university degrees have more to do with signalling than human capital accumulation. But then we know signals are only effective when costly to reproduce or fake. In that situation what people think of as inefficiency is a feature and not a bug.
Then there is the “standards have fallen” claim. To be fair – standards have been falling for thousands of years, even as human knowledge and human flourishing have, well, flourished. Almost everyone has the view that the education system experienced a golden era – coincidently when they were students – but now it has all gone to pot. I have very little sympathy with academic claims that teaching quality has declined. In a former life as an administrator I used to put the pressure back on those academics who made this claim by asking why they weren’t doing their jobs? After all maintaining teaching quality is what they are meant to do. Then I’d get some story about the students not being as good as they used to be. That is true – and I’ll address that issue shortly. The notion, however, that teaching quality must be poor because the students are poor has an inherent assumption that universities have no value-add. That may well be true ex post, but ex ante that argument is unacceptable.
Then there is the notion that standards have fallen because student quality has fallen. I always argue that standards have not fallen – they have been deliberately lowered. You cannot have a situation where university education has transitioned from an elite model – where say the top 5% (if that) went to university – to a situation where 35% of the age cohort is expected to go to university and not have a situation where the average graduate is as good as the average graduate a generation ago. Here is the thing – the really good students are still very good.
Okay – so where does Adam get it correct?
Last year there were 66,500 university administrators out of a total of 120,700 total staff.
Too many administrators – too many deputy assistant pro-vice chancellor (acting) positions. Too many people with the title “professor” who don’t teach or research.
Much university research these days arises merely to meet internal targets and receive federal grants, not for its intrinsic value.
That has always been true – research, however, is a measure of activity not truth-seeking (see above) and in any event nobody can really know the intrinsic value of any research upfront.
History suggests the most consequential research occurs outside any formal research grant process. At the same time as productivity growth has slowed, the number of academic journals and journal articles has exploded — while the number reading them has collapsed.
Yep – I have often suggested the ARC etc. get closed down.
Australia’s academics contribute far less to public debate than in other countries.
With honourable exceptions, of course. But here the universities have established The Conversation to deal with this very criticism. I don’t want to be too churlish by pointing out that The Conversation is a competitor to many of the media type who often criticise it (not that it isn’t beyond criticism).
Far from jacking up fees on students, the government should cease direct funding of universities and send, say, half the money directly to students. Then they could pick where and what they want to study. Further savings could be made in Canberra by tearing up the micromanagement of universities.
Why only 50% – give it all to the students (although in practice this is basically what happens already). Otherwise – yes.