Jim Barber on Australian universities

Jim Barber is a former deputy vice-chancellor at RMIT University. He was brought in by Margaret Gardner to be her right hand man when she became VC in the mid-noughties. Jim is quietly spoken. He was also a very, very effective administrator. With that assessment in the background, I want to point to a very powerful op-ed that he has published in The Australian:

The problem is that governments tired of hearing universities complain about underfunding long before the coronavirus arrived. The federal government and for that matter much of the Australian public either don’t care or don’t believe them.

This is because everyone except the universities themselves realise that radical reform is long overdue. The universities’ business model is outdated and expensive and if any good can come of this coronavirus disaster for universities, maybe it is that they will finally embrace change.

That second paragraph is both damning and true.

Jim Barber makes 5 points:

  1. There are too many universities in Australia.
  2. People need to realise that education is now a marketplace.
  3. Universities should stop spending so much money on buildings.
  4. Universities need to change their employment practices.
  5. Universities need to stop obstruction innovation.

Yep – those points are all more or less true. I do want to quibble slightly on point 3. One of Margaret Gardner’s finest achievements (she has many and I’m a huge fan of hers) was refurbishing those ghastly brutalist concrete blocks that were an eye-sore at the bottom of Swanston Street.

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, Australia had a globalised university sector that served a global market. As I’ve been arguing the size of the global market has collapsed. Industries that serve a large global market are now mis-sized. The Australian university sector is too big relative to the size of the global economy, let alone the size of the Australian economy. Downsizing is painful. Not only should some institutions exit the market, I suspect all universities will have to shrink in size.

Jim Barber has this to say:

Australian universities have been churning out research publications at an average annual increase of around three per cent per annum for the last decade or so. Universities are also teaching more students per academic staff member than they used to.

All this growth has been taken out of the hides of an army of casually employed tutors and lecturers who endure sweat shop conditions in order to generate revenue that is diverted into research and the lifestyles of their tenured colleagues.

There are many sides to every story and horror-stories (for and against casuals) abound. But I think that perspective is about right. A large part of this relates to an unwillingness to engage in labour savings reforms. There is a hostility to using multiple choice questions for testing and examination purposes. Then for many years people used to hand mark multiple choice question tests and exams! A couple of years ago I suggested looking at AI to grade exams and tests and people carried on like I was a mass-murderer. But people – casuals – get paid (extra) to mark exams.

What Jim Barber doesn’t touch on – is the growth in administration. When the minions have minions there is a problem. It is worse than it looks. Already more than half of university employees are administrators and are employed as  administrators. But there is also a growing number of nominally academic staff who are increasingly engaged in administrative work.

Anyway I could probably rant for hours on this topic. Read Jim Barber’s piece. It is the most sensible thing you’ll have read on Australian universities in a long time.

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51 Responses to Jim Barber on Australian universities

  1. Pyrmonter

    Brushing off my 30 year old scepticism about the Dawkins reforms … where is the evidence of scale economies that says larger institutions are better? Was creating the generalised institutions of today really an advance on the structures of the early 70s, when there were many fewer ‘universities’ and many more specialist training institutions – teachers’ colleges, Institutes of Technology, and specialist accountancy schools?

  2. Sinclair Davidson

    where is the evidence of scale economies that says larger institutions are better?

    I don’t think that is quite the argument I’m making here. But your point is well made – I don’t think the traditional university model scaled well.

  3. Rafe Champion

    The Commonwealth takeover of the unis by Whitlam was the start of the march of the administrators to the top of the institution because the central funding was a bureaucratic empire builders delight (see Parkinson’s Law). Some can still remember when the administration of the (very much smaller) universities consisted of a Bursar and a handful of staff while the faculties looked after themselves.

  4. Pyrmonter

    My observation was directed at item 1. I agree we have too many institutions that are too similar: the institutions of 1989 (when the last big wave of mergers started) were more diverse, though even by then there had been pressure for all the teachers colleges to become ‘Colleges of Advanced Education’, add on soft Arts-like courses (‘liberal studies’, ‘communications’), and merge into larger multi-campus institutions – all of which seemed to involve further levels of administrative staff, and once-off promotions of the academic staff.

  5. Pyrmonter

    @ Rafe

    TBF, it started earlier. Menzies commissioned the Murray Report. And post-War Labor was keen on a Commonwealth-sponsored ANU to break the pattern of training academics overseas and/or importing foreign academics (as late as when I was an undergraduate 30 years ago, there was an extraordinary number of Oxon/Cantab graduates among my teachers, at a not all that good G8 institution).

  6. Rafe Champion

    Menzies later admitted that he helped to wreck the universities by encouraging reckless growth. Of course he couldn’t see Cultural Marxism coming and from the beginning there was the problem of creating standards of scholarship in a community where only 2 or 3% had any experience of higher education (circa 1960). So for a long time staff had to be recruited overseas, until the universities started to “eat their young” by training their own staff!

  7. Suburban Boy

    The points made so far focus on questions of efficiency – which is certainly an important factor but not the only one.

    A bigger question is the continuing erosion of basic rights on campus – in particular, freedom of speech. Peter Ridd at JCU, the supposedly “racist” students persecuted at the instigation of QUT and now Drew Pavlou (I hope I remembered the name correctly) at UQ ought to be the first thoughts of anyone who calls for reform of our universities.

    Another concern – a perverse outcome of point 2 in the post – is the erosion of teaching standards due to a zeal for attracting foreign students. There have been too many stories of local students doing the lion’s share of group assignments (because foreign students in the group are unable to contribute) for them to be dismissed out of hand.

  8. Pyrmonter

    An aside

    I can understand the inefficiency, but how expensive is using casuals to mark exams? When I did it (a very long time ago) I remember thinking the pay was nice, but that was as a student whose alternatives were very limited – perhaps casual retail work.

  9. Matt

    Around 8 years ago in my time working at a Go8 university, I looked at staff and student growth over previous 5 years. There was a 7.8% increase in students numbers (including a 105% increase in higher degree course work students $$$), a 6% increase in academic staff and a 12.3% increase in administrative staff. Despite that, there had been a decrease in administrative support for academic staff. I left a few years after that.

  10. Pyrmonter

    @ Rafe

    Do you think moving to largely domestically trained personnel has improved things? For me, at least, one of the better aspects of University was being taught by people who hadn’t all been raised here. The comparative cosmopolitanism of the academic staff was something I thought we’d got right, though my sense is that it has retreated over the past 30 years. It’s partly a victim of changing subject choices, but about 1/2 the staff (of about 20) in the German Department were Germans or Austrians (and one Brit); the same institution now has one Australian-born German-speaking lecturer in a combined school of modern European languages.

  11. stackja

    There are too many universities in Australia. Yes!
    With the virus creating on-line universities, how many courses need university buildings? Three?
    How many courses really need a university? Again three?
    How many students really need a university? 1000?

  12. vr

    Agree about buildings and about bureaucrat bloat. The latter exist to make work for academics. Some marketing whiz at my university decided we should all use university template for PowerPoint slides, so the school spent money to hire someone to convert slides for academics. Quite a few took up that offer.

    sinc -RMIT might have technology in its name, but it wasn’t technologically advanced. The school l moved to had scantron machines. I was thrilled.

  13. Sinclair Davidson

    A bigger question is the continuing erosion of basic rights on campus – in particular, freedom of speech.

    I don’t see this is as being a problem on campuses at all. To the contrary; getting students to talk at all in class is a challenge academics face. Not shutting them up.

    Peter Ridd faced the problem that the university management somehow thought that the enterprise agreement didn’t apply to them.
    The QUT case was an instance where a staff member was suing the students under 18c. The uni tried to keep the students out of it and managed to mismanage the whole thing that then blew up in their faces.
    The UQ business relates to a university prankster that has taken a prank too far. Whatever the merits of his general argument, dressing up in a biohazard suit and harassing staff on campus is a very serious allegation.

  14. Sinclair Davidson

    The school l moved to had scantron machines. I was thrilled.

    Yes, I understand. That was an example.

  15. Chester Draws

    how many courses need university buildings? Three?

    So you’re suggesting chemists with no practical chemistry? Engineers who have only ever worked out of books? Doctors who’ve never seen a cadaver. Dentists who’ve never worked a tooth. There’s rather more than three courses with practical work.

    Until all the research material is on-line, you need a library as well.

    And since you have staff to set and mark the courses, they need buildings.

    How many courses really need a university? Again three?

    Look, you can pretend that difficult material is just so easy to get out of a book, but it’s not. Theoretically people could teach themselves calculus up to 3rd year university out of a book. but in practice it’s not going to happen.

    What people forget is that a hard working, clever student can teach themselves the things they like and the things they are good at out of books and on-line instruction. But teaching yourself the things you hate and are not good at is almost impossible that way. So the chemists need someone to help them with the maths, the biologists with the statistics etc.

    I taught myself HTML and CSS out of books. The result? I code very, very badly. I would have been much better off to get someone to show me what I was, and still am, doing wrong.

    How many students really need a university? 1000?

    Get a grip. Australia has 17,000 medical students alone.

  16. incoherent rambler

    doing the lion’s share of group assignments

    I know of one recent science graduate who paid for his degree with fees he collected for overseas students assignments.

    When you corrupt a system, there are always side effects.

  17. Diogenes

    @Pyrmonter – Newcastle Engineering/Computing faculty contains a goodly proportion of foreigners.

    @vr – I did my entire BAppSci(InfoTech) online & had my degree posted to me when it was done (2010) . Never set foot in Melboring in the 3 years I was doing it (RMIT).

  18. Sinclair Davidson

    There have been too many stories of local students doing the lion’s share of group assignments (because foreign students in the group are unable to contribute) for them to be dismissed out of hand.

    I can remember people bitching about group assignments since I was in primary school.

  19. I started uni at Monash in 1973 and completed my BAppSc at RMIT in the early 80s. I visited both many years afterwards and they were almost unrecognisable other than their location. The building changes and expansion was epic.

  20. Mak Siccar

    What Jim Barber doesn’t touch on – is the growth in administration. When the minions have minions there is a problem. It is worse than it looks. Already more than half of university employees are administrators and are employed as administrators. But there is also a growing number of nominally academic staff who are increasingly engaged in administrative work.

    Couldn’t agree more. In my many years as an engineering academic, the proportion of $ filtering down to the School level, where the real, non-virtual work of teaching and research was actually done, diminished down to something less than 40% . We academics often struggled to get consumables just to do practical work with the students, let alone go on field trips to see engineering work in action. Any operation that has 60% overheads, which is how I viewed the upper level leaches, is doomed to fail. Moreover, an increasing proportion of the ‘administrators’ had never stood in front of a class, or hadn’t done so for centuries, and had almost no clue what actually went on at the coal face and what resources were required to maintain standards agreed to with the professional accreditation body. And don’t get me started on the obscene salaries of the bloated upper echelon.

  21. Mak Siccar

    Oh and my domestic students, by and large, loathed group assignments, which were demanded by the likes of the Academic Board even though I didn’t want them, because of the bludgers that’s did little or nothing. More than once I had to quell a mutiny. Moreover, multiple choice exams have their place but not so much in STEM subjects.

    EOR.

  22. Pyrmonter

    @ stackja – but does online teaching work? There is a discipline to attending lectures, tutorials, consulting with your fellow students and writing papers that is (it has been in my experience) from online courses. As well as a deadline. Again, speaking for myself, I downloaded the Yale course in Game Theory but have never worked through it. Narrative stuff can work – (Greg Clark’s lectures based on A Farewell to Alms is very good) but even that doesn’t have the feedback I associate with real learning.

  23. Bruce of Newcastle

    Universities are bureaucracies where administrators take over and breed more administrators, like rabbits.

    In companies this also happens, until you get a GFC or a Chinese virus, then the company does a rationalization and ditches all the hangers-on.

    But universities, being a part of the public sector, never suffer such downsizing and rationalization. The bloat just keeps on bloating, until you get to the present day where the product has been so denatured that the main supply of students is now overseas people wanting to use the university system to buy permanent residency.

    Plumbers will inherit the Earth, or at least Australia, not womens’ studies BA graduates.

  24. Pyrmonter

    @ Sinc

    Yes – group work is awful whoever you’re doing it with.

  25. feelthebern

    There have been too many stories of local students doing the lion’s share of group assignments (because foreign students in the group are unable to contribute) for them to be dismissed out of hand.

    As many Cats would know many of my staff are Chinese born.
    When they’ve been in Australia completing their degree or doing a second degree or masters, they prefer not to have locals in their group assignments due to the lack of work they do.
    Talk of locals doing all the group work is not the reality.

  26. nb

    3) Universities should stop spending so much money on buildings.
    I do want to quibble slightly on point 3. One of Margaret Gardner’s finest achievements (she has many and I’m a huge fan of hers) was refurbishing those ghastly brutalist concrete blocks that were an eye-sore at the bottom of Swanston Street.

    Maybe. On the other hand the quality of new buildings on the campuses is sky high. Buckets of money are spent on creating privileged oases for our socialist friends.

  27. Catcalling Inebriate

    Dawkins reforms were political, gifting a chicken in every (regional) pot. Tenure is a redundant concept. Teaching is not valued or tested for effect. Research budgets are not prioritised. Far too many people are teaching relatively useless “skills” and opinions are very frequently conflated with science.
    Make the whole budget allocation and access regime subject to teaching and research value. Outcomes matter.

  28. Angus Black

    I can remember people bitching about group assignments since I was in primary school.

    That is because the only benefit there has ever been, arising from group work, is the reduced cost of marking.

    Personally, I take the view that continuous assessment has always been the source of most evil … and group work completed the job.

  29. Spurgeon Monkfish III

    There was zero “group work” back when I was studying for my B.Ec.

    Group work is an obvious manifestation of declining standards and guarantees that results are distributed inequitably. It is the opposite of progression in academic pedagogy.

  30. Iampeter

    Sadly I don’t think Jim Barber gets to the heart of the issue.

    There are too many universities in Australia.
    People need to realise that education is now a marketplace.
    Universities should stop spending so much money on buildings.
    Universities need to change their employment practices.
    Universities need to stop obstruction innovation.

    None of this is the fault of Universities nor is there anything they can measurably do about it.
    They are effectively wards of the state, not businesses or something.
    They are something like a “zombie business.”

    Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, Australia had a globalised university sector that served a global market.

    I’d say prior to COVID-19, universities survived their over-regulated existence by publishing pointless, but politically motivated research in exchange for government handouts and educating the wealthy children of communist dictatorships from overseas.
    There really is no way out here and no amount of appeals-to-innovation, or pulling-themselves-up-by-bootstraps, is going to fix education.

    The only way to fix this is to get the government out of the way. To dismantle education departments at state and national level by explaining that this is not a legitimate function of government in the first place.

    This will then free the education industry to boom. It’ll mean the end for fossil organizations like “universities” but it’ll mean real innovation and real quality returning to the long over-regulated education sector of our economy.

  31. Spurgeon Monkfish III

    hose ghastly brutalist concrete blocks that were an eye-sore

    Yep, reminds me of good ol’ UTS, which possesses not one, but two of this country’s most monstrous eyesores.

    The massive shit coloured box on Broadway and the Dr Ching Chong Kok Pow monstrosity (a “work” of that irredeemable egomaniacal arsehole frank gehry).

    Grate stuff. Possessing one might have simply been the result of carelessness or cost cutting, possessing two indicates extra special efforts have been made to double down on stupid.

  32. Buccaneer

    My wife recently left the health faculty of an internationally recognised Uni. She was on the academic staff and had to endure the casual treadmill. The place was completely dysfunctional. Academic staff doing basic admin. Constantly changing systems and procedures so that no one could tell how or what they should do. Constant work overload with underestimation of work loading and deliberate not accounting for large sections of tasks. On top of that academic requirements that were impossible to meet. Not one person was happy but several of them were part of the problem, even though they weren’t happy either. Locus of control always “outside” the control of the people doing the tasks. To add insult to injury, lots of talk of work life balance and equality.

    The worst part was the diversidy requirements meant they spent large tracts of time baby sitting memebers of special interest groups who could not meet the requirements of the course but were unable to be managed out.

    Lots of vulnerable casual academics will find it hard to find employ elsewhere. Few bosses want someone who might be smarter than themselves.

  33. Roger

    And another thing…Australian universities get too many tax concessions now that they’ve shifted to a business model rather than a not for profit model of operation.

  34. H B Bear

    Universities are just another industry sector that have grown fat, lazy and dependent on Chinese money.

  35. sfw

    I’ve never heard of the north end of Swanston St called “the bottom of Swanston St”. It’s at the top a hill, looks down on the city and is at the north end, that means it has to be the top of Swanston St.

  36. Pyrmonter

    @ Spurgeon

    No group-work when I started a BEc, but by the time I was finishing a BCom 8 years later, it was plentiful. It was terrible; and that was before there was any issue of cross-cultural barriers etc.

    UTS has just built several buildings along Broadway of moderate merit, and which more or less match the Frasers development opposite. If nothing else, they screen the Brutalist Tower. (Not sure, but I recall reading that there were originally to be 6 of those towers)

  37. James Hargrave

    Expensive new buildings may be award-winning, etc. and have various fancy features, but the Arts building at Melbourne has offices that resemble big shower cubicles and academics were told to take the bulk of their books home or get rid of them because their new offices wouldn’t accommodate them…

  38. Professor Fred Lenin

    Didnt Hawke and Keating establish lots of “universities “to absorb the massive youth unemployment problem thay had created ? It admitted kide who would never have ever been admitted in to the established unis who actually still had admission standards ,they also recruited hordes of underqualified “teachers “to staff them . Theyhave now developed into a foreign student paid degree factories .
    The left never creates ,it destroys . Wait till China pulls thier kids out ,the end is nigh ,and its not climate change its lack of money.

  39. tgs

    Group assignments exist because lazy course admins want to reduce the effort required to assess.

    I agree with pretty much everything Barber says.

  40. Squirrel

    The education sector as a whole (not just universities) are doing a less than brilliant job of meeting the skills needs of the Australian economy which has, apparently, required a high rate of “skilled” immigration for many years – in spite of rates of unemployment and under-employment which were already high before the virus hit.

    A cleanout of b/s jobs from the university sector would also have the benefit of reducing (even if only marginally) the number of people in our society who support ratbag lefty policies which only make sense to those who are very comfortably detached from economic reality.

  41. thefrollickingmole

    bureaucrat bloat

    Bloateucrats??

  42. a reader

    After being head hunted from private industry into a specialised subject area at a G8 university I totally concur. The bureaucracy and lack of movement on so many issues is extraordinary.

  43. liliana

    Squirrel
    #3454369, posted on May 15, 2020 at 6:00 pm

    Totally agree. Students leave University with no marketable skills hence our need to import. Time to get rid of lots of BS courses or make them full fee upfront with no government assistance. Gender studies would be the first on the chopping block.

  44. Tel

    Oh and my domestic students, by and large, loathed group assignments, which were demanded by the likes of the Academic Board even though I didn’t want them, because of the bludgers that’s did little or nothing. More than once I had to quell a mutiny. Moreover, multiple choice exams have their place but not so much in STEM subjects.

    It’s hard to win with group assignments … I remember one time I got quite a good partner for a programming assignment and we only had limited time to communicate (we didn’t live together or anything) so we did the logical thing and divided up the workload. I did a lot of the graphics and presentation stuff (back in the day when graphics cards were shit so it was a lot of work to get any display) and the other guy had done a bunch of other calculations … then apparently the teacher got shitty because I didn’t have strong familiarity with how the other guy’s code worked. I mean the whole point of division of labour is to get more done by making it as modular as possible, then you lose because the point of the assignment is they want to make sure you don’t do that.

    There are times when you get rotten group partners, and then the situation is even worse.

  45. vr

    On the topic of group assignments, my school made the decision of not having group assignments this year. all individual submissions and l have north of 500 students enrolled. I had a zoom session to talk about it — 75 showed up. I had make that case that they are better off, as they can work on their writing, presentation and critical thinking skills and learn a subject a little more deeply. And in a world with take home exams where everyone gets an A they have something concrete to show potential employers. Anyways, that was my spiel.

  46. Tel

    There are too many universities in Australia.

    No there’s not enough, but the existing universities are too big.

    The whole concept of “university” is silly in a modern society … do one job and do it well, even if that’s quite a narrow specialization.

    People need to realise that education is now a marketplace.

    I think quite a few people do realise that, but it’s happening from the bottom up … students should put at least some of their own money in upfront so that they have some appreciation of value. It will never be a proper marketplace while the whole thing runs on tax money and actions are isolated from consequences. Universities benefiting from government loan programs should have at least some of their money held back until those loans are repaid, as a way to encourage them to think hard about teaching money-earning skills.

    Universities should stop spending so much money on buildings.

    Agree on that one, but if education really was a marketplace that would sort itself out automatically.

    Universities need to change their employment practices.

    Again, if the marketplace concept was working, the employment situation would sort itself out.

    Universities need to stop obstruction innovation.

    Smaller is more innovative … if that’s your objective then you need more independent businesses, each one smaller. Consolidation will kill innovation for sure.

    That said, teaching and research are kind of related, but they also fight against each other to some extent.

  47. Tel

    That is because the only benefit there has ever been, arising from group work, is the reduced cost of marking.

    There was this movement that demanded universities teach “real world” skills like teamwork. The problem was that no one actually knew anything about what they were supposed to be teaching so they figured that by forcing students to do projects together (with absolutely no structure other than pushing a bunch of people into a group) it would magically teach them all about team dynamics. In retrospect it was a bit like teaching someone Newtonian physics by kicking them in the nuts … not strictly speaking wrong, but inefficient.

    Personally, I take the view that continuous assessment has always been the source of most evil … and group work completed the job.

    Ahhh there were people who complained that they were extremely clever but unable to perform well under exam conditions. I dunno … I wasn’t one of those people.

  48. Rafe Champion

    @ Pyrmonter Do you think moving to largely domestically trained personnel has improved things? For me, at least, one of the better aspects of University was being taught by people who hadn’t all been raised here. The comparative cosmopolitanism of the academic staff was something I thought we’d got right, though my sense is that it has retreated over the past 30 years.

    Yes on all counts. We had some superb academics from overseas and esp in Tasmania this was an important intro to cosmop0litanism (perhaps mainlanders count as overseas imports, James McAuley came to Hobart and I goofed off from the Ag Dept to sit in on some of his lectures). Locals were only just starting to do doctorates in numbers during the 1960s and doctorates were becoming essential for appointments so we had to import a lot until we produced more of our own. That probably accounts for the retreat, plus a bit of local cronyism:)

  49. Damon

    I taught for many years in a top GO8 university, and utilised group studies successfully. After a ‘review’ of my subject, I was told that peer review was not possible, because “they wouldn’t do it”, meaning they colluded to rig their marks. The people at the coalface know what’s going on, they are just never asked.

  50. Tel

    We had some superb academics from overseas …

    I had an excellent Engineering teacher who came from a Scottish background (he might have been there some time during the Scottish Enlightenment) but he came to Australia while we were still part of the British Empire so I would regard him as close enough to a local boy.

  51. Spurgeon Monkfish III

    there were originally to be 6 of those towers

    Just as that vile tasteless imbecile seidler wanted about 20 Blues Point Towers blighting the western precinct of the lower north shore.

    Once one had gone up, that was thankfully enough.

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