Are Australian universities just not good enough?

So the reserved and mild-mannered American Canadian law Professor James Allan, who works at an under performing Australian university, has recently written a long tirade against the bureaucratisation of higher education in Australia. While it contains a few home truths which need public acknowledgement – like the centralisation of decision-making and the power of university executives to make inappropriate rules, and also set their own pay – it also misses important context, and offers personal biases and anecdotes instead evidence and constructive suggestions for improvements. I want to respond here to that article. First let me attempt to summarise Allan’s points about what is wrong with Australian universities.

  •  University administrators seem to value research grants as outputs rather than inputs
  • Bureaucratic decisions at universities are quite centralised
  • Students work and study, meaning they want lectures recorded and don’t want to do extra reading 
  • Students don’t travel to other cities to study
  • University ranking tables are a sham, and Australian universities are not performing as well as these tables make out

However Allan doesn’t actually explain what a suitable output performance measure should be for a university. The most we get is this:

In Canadian law schools (and US ones, and UK ones) you are expected to be working on your degree full-time. You are expected to do lots of reading. You are expected to think. You are expected to pursue things on your own. You are not expected to schedule classes all on two days of the week so you can work the other three. Or tell your professor that you can’t do something because it conflicts with work. Or be so tired that you do as little reading as you can get away with.

Yet that is now standard practice in Australia. I can still, just, get away with refusing to record any of my lectures and so insist that students come (or not, since as adults it is up to them, but if not they are on their own). But the university administration detests that position and is making it harder and harder to take. As I came to Australia already with a chair I can ignore the students who get infuriated about this practice of mine in their course evaluations. But no junior academic wanting to be promoted can do so. It is no exaggeration to say that the incentives are slanted heavily in favour of caving in, of spoon-feeding students, of recording all lectures for viewing from home (with much reduced class attendance as a result)—anything to facilitate the job commitment of the supposedly full-time undergraduate.

The flip-side of this situation is that the demands on students (even at our Group of Eight universities) are noticeably below what they are in good Canadian and UK and US universities. As for a serious Ivy League or Oxbridge undergraduate education, well, we are not in the same league as those institutions because we demand so little of our students.

Australian universities are not good enough, apparently, because students need to read more, and think, and pursue things on their own. He also makes a personal judgement that what you learn at university must be superior to the skills you learn at work, or that working and earning a living is not ‘pursuing things on your own’. That doesn’t really sound like a typical Australian attitude to me. My personal experience in economics is that a degree gets you in the door, then it is all down to experience. Working while studying, especially in your chosen field, is quite advantageous.

But he really doesn’t elaborate any further. Is university performance measured by research output? Is it measured by revenue? If so, he doesn’t have much of a case against the administrative bias towards academics who generate research grants.

Or is it the number of peer reviewed journal articles? If so, is it quantity or quality? Who will judge quality? Is it student numbers per academic? Or is it student quality? Who will assess that? Or do we judge performance on the gut feel of visiting academics with their own personal biases?

I don’t want to sound harsh, but for a senior academic writing about the underperformance of Australian universities, a little note about what underperformance really means, framed within the role of universities within society, would be nice.  He signals that it should be research output, noting that people:

…could see the difference between judging people based on what they wrote and produced versus one that judged them based largely on winning as many grants as possible.

But he fails to return to how this measure fits into his picture of a competitive university system.

Whinging about the rules doesn’t really help. It is like an Apple employee coming into the company and saying they have a lot of centralised decision-making and that engineers were slugged with bureaucratic tasks, such as getting central approvals to spend money on new equipment.  Whereas at their last job they could do as they please.

Sure, from the employee perspective this seems like a horrible system to work in. But to any outsider assessing the performance of the company as a whole would feel it is worth it. That’s because we have an agreed measure of what company performance is. For universities we don’t, and that is usually the recipe for a growing bureaucracy.

Allan lays some of the blame at a lack of competition, perhaps due to some cultural norm of families not sending their sons and daughters interstate to the ‘best’ university in their field. Apparently this lack of competition means that universities can slack off and amuse themselves with ever more burdensome central rule-making and ever-greater executive pay. Allan writes:

In this sense, Australia and its universities are at a disadvantage. Imagine what would happen if parents were as likely to send their kids to Melbourne University as to Sydney University or the University of Queensland or Australian National University, and the deciding factors came down to what the universities had to offer, say in terms of class sizes or contact with professors or the “undergraduate experience”.

There are two problems with this point. First, is that the universities are full of international students. Outside of law especially. Surely these students are discerning about their university choice and hence provide a great deal of competitive pressure. According to the ABS 22% of students at university in Australia are international students, while at some universities that figure is over 40%. Monash and Melbourne universities seem to be competing quite fiercely, with Melbourne experimenting with student offerings at great risk.

Second, the central rules that Allan hates so much are just as much the result of competitive forces, than on the lack of such forces; of trying to attract students by ensuring the get the easiest path through their study. We’ve seen the gimmicks about giving new student iPads. Allan mentions the imposition of consistent marking systems, PhD criteria for lecturing positions, timing of student evaluations; all of these are about managing university-wide quality in order to assure new students of what they will be getting. Haven’t you seen advertisements?

This is what happens with competition for students (customers), and students mean revenue. If you want universities run competitively like private businesses, you must expect that they will measure their success in similar ways.

So where does research output fit into his competitive picture? It certainly doesn’t raise revenues, and most undergraduates, the customers of universities, wouldn’t have a clue about their school’s research anyway.

Regarding the lack of travel to university, if I can sum up the Australian view very roughly, it is that university is more like advanced vocational training. Degrees that used to be provided by technical colleges are now integrated into universities. Students don’t travel because their local university usually maintains standards high enough to get them into their chosen field. Why travel if you can be assured of equally good local training? After all, once you are in the door, your experience counts much more than your degree in most fields.

Allan writes:

When I try to point out the advantages of sending one’s kids away to university here in Australia I am generally met with blank stares of incredulity.

But of course, he didn’t mention any of those advantages in his article. Could it be that there really aren’t many? Or is he saying that Australians are just too stupid to see them? Which leads to the more entrenched problem.

The competition that drives student selection and travel for study in the US and the UK is the result of monopoly power of universities so that students must compete. And this competition between strident is also drive from a higher level. Reputation and insider connections within top universities to political and corporate elites means the payoff to getting into those universities is much higher. A degree at Princeton or Harvard is a meal ticket with a value far higher than cost of tuition itself. This not only means that students want to travel to get in to these universities, but that they (and their parents) are willing to pay through the nose for it as well. Here’s just one example of the political connections a degree at Oxford brings.

In Australia we don’t have that ‘boys club’ mentality to such an extent, especially not in most degrees. Having a teaching degree from QUT doesn’t open doors at Goldman Sachs, unlike a finance degree from MIT.

While I am sure Allan feels much better getting this all off his chest, I can’t help but think he has missed the important points to focus on his personal gripes. He overlooks exactly why Australian universities aren’t good enough, and then appeals to competition as some magical remedy to all organisational problems like some evangelical Chicago economist. Lastly, his suggestions for improving the situations include a bunch of central administrative tools!

One of his suggestions, the publication of remuneration of the highest paid employees, is generally already complied with in the annual financial accounts, where executive pay is itemised (here’s UQ, here’s QUT). But of course, executive pay exploding is not limited to universities. It is a general problem of power that competition alone does not solve.

Another suggestion is to publish the ratio of academic to non-academic staff, which is essentially a meaningless ratio because it absolutely depends on the tasks each staff is responsible for.  If administrative staff are freeing up time for academics, then that is a good thing. I could imagine these suggestions being implements and a future version of Professor Allan writing another article deriding them!

He suggests scrapping the ARC grant system, but makes no suggestion of alternative funding allocation mechanisms, as if by magic money will find worthy researchers. I agree the system is poor, but we need to be discussing better alternatives. Why didn’t Allan tell us a bit about the funding systems in those hot-shot universities he so reveres?

When push comes to shove Allan goes for the practical over the ideological, which is a good thing. But it leaves you wondering what the point of all those words really were. Will they merely be interpreted as at the ravings of a sheltered and entitled academic? We have quite enough of that already. Please share this article.

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Comments

  1. migtronixMEMBER

    Geez Rumple talk about long tirades! What was the purpose of all of that?

    1) Law in America resembles nothing of free thinking
    A US judge has upheld oil company Chevron’s allegations that an Ecuadorian court decision ordering it to pay $9.5bn for oil pollution in the Amazon jungle was fraudulently obtained.
    http://www.aljazeera.com/news/americas/2014/03/us-judge-rejects-9bn-ruling-against-chevron-2014351287264403.html

    So that needed no counter-argument to.

    2) If this moron needs the cherished glances of pupils to make his b*lls tingle he’s, again, as dodgy as the day is long — if he was a great lecturer and this came across in the videos, not only his students but others would be clamoring to get into the lecture.

    3) The standard of education, indeed of human consciousness, is inexorably flowing to the gutter because a cursory glance at a newspaper tells you no one cares any more.

    4) Punctuation and formatting would do your piece here wonders.

    5) The grants issue is a real one, ignore it at your own peril — one of the many problems I see with the “Peer Review” process.

    6) You yourself offered no solution so presumably you are quite content with the quality of graduates?

    Academic squabbling is terse, unseemly, fatuous navel gazing by people who offer so little to societies intellectual kaleidescope, unlike bright lights of old, that everyone is quite happy that they are paid a healthy wage to keep their opinions to themselves.

    Case in point: From Alan
    as with anything, I suppose, one just gets used to the bizarre and insanely bureaucratic practices. I recall having a coffee a few years back with the then shadow higher-education minister and being left with the feeling that none of this overly bothered him.

    Interesting I got the same impression from talking to a Law professor when discussing the dismal state of practice of Common Law by his graduates.

    Over and out.

    • University is old!

      Mostly now just a mechanism for channelling money and time from the passive young of the middle class on the pretext of ‘you will get a better job’.

      Education is never old, but universities don’t sell much of that these days, and what they do sell is ridiculously over-priced for value.

      • migtronixMEMBER

        Concur with all of that aj and double goes for “ridiculously over-priced for value”

      • “Education is never old, but universities don’t sell much of that these days, and what they do sell is ridiculously over-priced for value.”

        this is true especially for Economic Schools and some artificially created “sciences” like gender studies etc. – those are the most crowded in any university and with the least value.

        The same is not true for many fundamental sciences.

        The university standards are going down, simply because all universities became BUSINESS. This will make them even worse.

        Regarding American universities, let take Harvard or Chicago university. They are only for the richest elite and they are much worse than Australian universities, because they are ideologically brain washed and serving a very tiny part of world society.

    • If this moron needs the cherished glances of pupils to make his b*lls tingle he’s, again, as dodgy as the day is long — if he was a great lecturer and this came across in the videos, not only his students but others would be clamoring to get into the lecture.

      That’s the first thing I thought. As a recent graduate, the lectures that I didn’t go to were the ones that were largely a waste of time because the lecturer’s accent was unintelligible and/or they were just reading slides (often written by someone else). It goes both ways. There are plenty of lecturers out there that don’t really care much about delivering a quality education, and just see teaching hours as a speed bump to their research.

      The institutions themselves are well on their way to being rubber stamp organisations. You can get a better education online now from organisations like Khan Academy and Coursea.

      Everyone knows this, it’s not a secret. But people still need their stamps in order to get that first job in their field, so they keep going.

      • If you get education only from online course that means the course actually gives you broader view and intelligence, but not serious fundamental knowledge. There are some courses, which don’t need so much human interaction, but a serious education needs human interaction with the teacher/lecturer. If we make the education as any other business, than the teaching should be on conveyor, which is cheapest online, not in the class room, just like the mass production. How can someone even suggest that the best education can be without human interaction…..

        Education for employability is one thing and totally different thing is education for knowledge and development of creativity.

    • Rumplestatskin

      The purpose. Well, to highlight the irony of the nonsense that academics come up with when they criticise the nonsense of others.

      Solutions? Sure.

      Undo a lot of the competition reform that has happen in tertiary education. Separate out technical colleges as teaching schools, and encourage ties with high schools and industry.

      Fund universities by metrics other than per student and via research grant programs. Say some combination of research output and student numbers. This means some universities, and schools within them will choose to spend on better teaching, or better research.

      A quota of some form needs to be enacted so that universities end up with the best and most motivated students.

      There are many solutions if you have a clear outcome in mind. But with any of them there are trade-offs. Quotas mean unequal access, especially for those from poor backgrounds

      My general view on such matters is to look abroad at systems that work and offer outcomes we would be happy with.

      But we recently had a national review of tertiary education – the Bradley Report. It outlines, as expected, a goal full of contradictions. A slight exaggeration would be – “We want everyone to have a degree, but also have the smartest graduates”.

      http://www.industry.gov.au/HigherEducation/Documents/Review/PDF/Higher%20Education%20Review_one%20document_02.pdf

      • flyingfoxMEMBER

        My general view on such matters is to look abroad at systems that work and offer outcomes we would be happy with.

        Right…in our entitled country…no way.

        I remember one of my first year digital systems lecturers on the first day of class telling us, look to your right, look to your left. One of the 3 of you will fail.

        He only gave out rudimentary notes but the lectures and labs were designed to teach the rest. You had to attend but there was no requirement to.

        Was he a good lecturer, no. Did I learn digital systems design and assembly programming like the back of my hand. YES.

        I bet he would get sued today if he pulled his opening line.

      • From Rumplestatskin’s original piece:

        “This is what happens with competition for students (customers), and students mean revenue.”

        And from his above comment:

        “Undo a lot of the competition reform that has happen in tertiary education. “

        How can folks here still not see, that the point I constantly make re usury-based monetary system = artificial scarcity of money, and thus, everyone forced into competition for money, is the root cause of this “competition for money” paradigm in the sphere of higher education too?

        *big sigh*

        Until we begin to recognise what is the true root cause of the problems we point to, then all the energy put into authoring articles such as this, and commenting on it, is utterly wasted energy. And attempting to implement solutions that do not address the root cause, would be further wasted energy.

        Just PRINT the damned money, usury-free, to finance quality higher education.

        Problem solved.

  2. Its just some academic disconnected from the real world, the most common kind you find at university.

    I would rather get engineers from a three year course at a cheap uni with great references from relevant industry work they did while studying than get a masters graduate from the top ranked university with no real experience or references.

      • It is, however I’d be happy to take someone from a 3 year program, sorry I wasn’t clear.

    • I would rather get engineers from a three year course at a cheap uni with great references from relevant industry work they did while studying

      Do you employ students while they attempt a course at a cheap uni, and then write references for them?

      Or is this something you expect OTHER EMPLOYERS to do so you can come along and pick and choose after they are taught and trained?

      • We’re a big company and I was brought in at the end of my second year of uni and worked at least 2 days per week during semester and over all the holidays full time from then on. Yes, we now do the same thing, we have vac students in over summer particularly, we also use students for some programming work and on a casual basis for electronics work throughout semester.

    • Dunno Dogbert.

      I’d prefer to work with or hire the engineer I didn’t have to give lessons in year 12 level physics to. Heat transfer shouldn’t be considered ‘advanced’ or ‘specialised’.

      In your case, maybe you’d be better off with a TAFE trained Engineering Technologist/Associate?

      • Sorry I’m in mining so yeah point taken, if you are taking engineers for something more advanced than playing in a sandpit, a bit of computer programming and some custom electronics assembly, maybe you want people who went to lectures…

    • Whats a cheap uni?

      All engineering degrees in Australia are approved and accredited by Engineers Australia, this is done every few years or when the syllabus is updated. It’s not like you can complete an engineering degree online like you can with finance etc…

      Anyone who can complete an engineering degree, I’ll tip my hat to your sir!

      • migtronixMEMBER

        Thanks I have 2. To be honest I never thought they were hard I just thought all other courses were complete jokes. Drinking sessions really…

    • If one can study and work, that means his studies are just as low as it can be. Experience can be taken during holidays, not during serious studies, like engineering. And if we add the time spent in the pubs during uni time, there is no much left for study actually, but everyone wonders why is the productivity so low here.

      Once upon a time studies required much reading and working on assignments at home after the lectures. Today, people can work and study and go to the pubs and have much fun, when trying to learn before the exam only the needed for the final test.

      • Was engineering ever anything other than a drunken stumble through some fairly complicated concepts that you either naturally understand or you give up?

  3. Before I reply, honest questions, have you experienced being taught at a Ivy League, UK or Northern Europe university and/or the skills of those taught at an overseas university?

    • Rumplestatskin

      No. But I do interact with the graduates of Ivy league and OxbridgePhD programs, who are now academics, from these universities daily.

      My general impression, from the point of view of economics only, is that they are very good at solving the standard maths problems, and very bad at all things practical. And more often then not, constrained in their thinking to what they have been taught.

      My point though, is that although Allan has a big whinge, about bureaucracy, appeals to the utopian competitive outcome while comparing to very uncompetitive universities, he ends up recommending more bureaucracy.

      So, what’s your reply? I’d actually be very interested in a comparison with Dutch universities.

      • migtronixMEMBER

        I went to UWA here and Cambridge/Coimbra there and the difference in sheer desire to be informed is palpable. Here they just want the degree, no learning required.

      • Rumplestatskin

        mig,

        Yeah, sure. That depends on the particular uni, course, and cohort. But it is a common complaint.

        If this is your main problem though, the solution to this is dead easy. Just charge $40,000 a year for tuition.

        It’s the reason international students are so much more motivated than domestic students.

        There is a tradeoff here that Allan ignores.

      • My general impression, from the point of view of economics only, is that they are very good at solving the standard maths problems, and very bad at all things practical.

        In my experience there is a mix of practically minded and academically minded people coming through most courses. The academically minded people are more likely to end up in academia, so your dataset of people “who are now academics”, may not be representative of the general graduating population from those universities. I dare say that the practically minded graduates are now more likely to be working in industry and not in academia.

      • My comment seems to have gone missing. Apologies if this is a double post…

        Rumple, I was asking because I never went to uni here so I can’t compare from personal experience.

        I must admit that I have my doubts about Australian Universities based on the analytical prowess I have seen from many people with Australian degrees (sorry guys… really don’t mean to offend) and what I have heard from uni lecturers who are, to put it mildly, not impressed by students’ skills or their lack of desire to learn. I have also seen that it seems to be considered normal that uni interns on many days do not show up during their internship which I think is a symptom of a bigger problem.

        My take on it is that Australia has seen a prolonged time dominated by the ideology that everything needs to either make money or cover costs, including education. This has resulted in education as an export product and a tendency to cave in to financial incentives. I have heard complaints about the pressure on lecturers from within the organisation to let students pass even though they think those students should fail. Many international students seem to bring an expectation that money will get you anything because that is what they were used to at home… this often translates into the expectation that a diploma is guaranteed because they paid good money for it. These pressures have lowered the quality across the board, including for Australian students.

        On the comparison between Dutch and Australian systems, the Dutch system is quite different and characterised by “streams” intended to suit a student’s abilities, see here:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_the_Netherlands

        What we call “universities” (WO stream in the image on wikipedia) are just the top institutions who cater for approximately the top 10% of students. About a decade ago they catered to an even smaller student population of 5%. Other institutions are not allowed to use the branding “universiteit” although that has recently been muddied by the use of the english word “university” by some of those other institutions.

        In The Netherlands the entire system is based on streams, so the top stream in high school takes 6 years, most of which are focused on preparing for academic education by developing analytical thinking.

        Because everyone in The Netherlands is aware of the skill set that comes with a degree there is not as big a difference in status between courses given at universities, whereas over here it seems only medicine, law and engineering are considered decent degrees.

        One other difference I want to point out is that in The Netherlands diplomas and degrees are essential to getting a job. Without an academic degree you are unlikely to make it into the upper echelons of large organisations. Over here it seems to be more about local(!) experience… i.e. doing the hard yards. Whereas that is probably popular with the Australian public I personally don’t think it results in having the right people at the right places.

        Unfortunately the thought that education should cover costs as much as possible has been creeping into the Dutch approach as well over the last decade or so, with negative results and a pressure on the quality of education.

      • Rumplestatskin

        AnonNL,

        Excellent comment. You are basically correct that the ideology that education is a product generates the “tendency to cave in to financial incentives”. That is Allan’s gripe, along with many others.

        But he, for some reason, thinks that more competition for student is the solution to the problems of competition. While he was big on symptoms, he really never pinned down the problem, and probably never will, since he recommends more of the same as a solution.

        We once had a system much like the Dutch one (look at section After 1972)

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tertiary_education_in_Australia

        But then the political consensus changed to an objective of churning through more students and getting universities to fund themselves.

        Certainly no system is perfect. But a senior academic whinging incoherently about it doesn’t really help the cause. His argument boils down to (and let me indulge in some hyperbole)

        1) parents are foolish for not sending their children interstate to uni (despite him being unable to identify any benefits from doing so),

        2) having to actually help students learn rather than have them beg and squirm and fork over $40,000 a year for the privilege of his company,

        3) being forced to have university wide consistency in teaching approaches.

        Then he compares to universities that have resources more than 20x greater than most Australian universities. For example, Harvard has $32billion of assets at their disposal for 21,000 students. UQ has $3billion for 48,000 students. I’m sure if you gave UQ $29billion and told them they are able to charge $40,000 per year direct to the students, you would only have the best students attend as well!

        I will stop exaggerating now.

        There is a middle ground here. Going back to successful past models is one idea that has merit. But the solution is clearly NOT more competition as Allan thinks, not is it about nudging parents to send children interstate to study. The ‘solution’ starts with a clear political ambition about the role of universities. At present, all we have is self-funding pro-market ideology – something that Allan also buys into.

      • drsmithyMEMBER

        Certainly no system is perfect. But a senior academic whinging incoherently about it doesn’t really help the cause. His argument boils down to (and let me indulge in some hyperbole)

        Those are a gross misrepresentation of what he’s saying.

        His point about students not going interstate is that the result is Universities do not compete with each other to attract the best students on a national level. He also makes the point they barely compete locally due to the current ranking systems. Or, to put it another way, if you want to go to university then the university you go to will be almost entirely decided by a) where you live and b) your results. Universities know this and are consequently lazy due to their basically guaranteed attendance rates.

        He clearly doesn’t think watching recorded lectures and studying while working near full-time is an effective way to learn, and doesn’t want to be a party to a system that encourages it.

        He thinks that research, teaching, recruiting and assessment methodologies should be allowed to be different between different faculties.

  4. I think our Canadian friend is making a lot of interesting comments here.

    I could make the effort of a point-by-point discussion, but given that the comments here so far have been of the bogan-esque “academics are useless” variety, I’d be wasting my time.

    I suppose it’s OK if Australia doesn’t have a world class academic research culture because we’ve got all these cutting edge industries with excellent R&D picking up the slack… oh wait on a minute….

    • migtronixMEMBER

      Wow!! Boganesque was your take away? Not the far more contemplative academics have broken their compact with knowledge dissemination

      Do tell what are the interesting comments our Canadian friend made?

      Do we need/want a “World class academic research culture” in law?!?! Because that’s what our Canadian friend is pimping.

      Today I have a meeting with researchers from the National Trauma Research Institute and Melbourne Uni Med to go over details for a data mining study they want my help with. Oh wait. It is internationally significant because the head researcher is from Potsdam University.

      • flyingfoxMEMBER

        @mig

        Today I have a meeting with researchers from the National Trauma Research Institute and Melbourne Uni Med to go over details for a data mining study they want my help with.

        Interesting … just plain stats or something a bit more interesting like machine learning?

      • migtronixMEMBER

        @ff the ML is what I’m there for 🙂 Otherwise the basic requirements involve loading up a hadoop cluster and hammering it with stat. correlations.

      • migtronixMEMBER

        @ff OH YEAH! I’m sitting on a pile of data and its only been in the last couple of years that people have begun to understand it — there are literally BILLIONS of data-points from the ICU monitors, from the blood analysis, from the nutrition module, from the fluid balance module, physios, speach path, you name it… I’m sitting on data for quite a few ICUs but I can’t go into that very much. Basically these guys think they’ve found predictors that, when alerted to early enough, have a significant outcome for severe trauma rehabilitation and management but they have no idea how to test their model.

      • Migtronix,

        You seem to be saying that we do not need world class research culture in law. If so, can you explain why is that?

      • migtronixMEMBER

        @cool I can’t explain that because I’m saying no such thing. Law is an area of Australian interest that is grossly over represented – to the detriment of science

        EDIT: my bad I didn’t see the caveat “law” in your question, apologies. I’m not strictly speaking saying that but law being what it is “World class” isn’t very meaningful (jurisdictions) – science and engineering on the other hand

      • drsmithyMEMBER

        Not the far more contemplative academics have broken their compact with knowledge dissemination

        It seems pretty obvious from the article the problem isn’t with academics, it’s with bureacracy.

        Do tell what are the interesting comments our Canadian friend made?

        Off the top of my head:

        * Academic staff are valued not on their ability to produce useful research or pass on knowledge, but to attract grants.
        * University rating systems, while extensively used by undergraduate students to select an institution, are based on criteria that are either useless for that purpose, or useless for anything at all.
        * Administrative staff are both far too numerous and far too highly paid.
        * Decision making is far too centralised and bureacratic. Schools within institutions have too little control over their own destinies.
        * Universities do not compete with each other for students on a national basis, and barely compete with each other even on a local basis.
        * He is completely out of touch with residency costs ($12k/yr ? Not at any “big” Uni).
        * Students do dedicate enough tim to their studies (voluntarily or otherwise).

        Do we need/want a “World class academic research culture” in law?!?! Because that’s what our Canadian friend is pimping.

        No he’s not.

      • migtronixMEMBER

        @drsmithy reading his quadrant piece at 4 this morning I found his pedagogy wanting, re reading now I still do. The problems he points to he himself is cause of and the tirade did leave a lot to be desired – as I noted in first comment here.

        As rumple severally observed, and you yourself know from other areas, competition for students – locally, nationally, internationally – is to avail for the complaints he outlined.

  5. Excellent article Rumplestatskin. I find it interesting that the good professor objects to students working while they study, and that they don’t attend his lectures. It’s all about him of course!

    My personal experience:
    I started my degree in Property Economics at the age of 39, married, 2 young kids, high pressure full time job. I undertook the whole 6 years of study externally (i.e. “by correspondence”). Completed the course with Distinction, on schedule, and won the University Medal along with several prizes.
    Now I am no genius – my main advantage compared to most of the students who attended full time was that I was working in a related field (mortgage finance) and was “mature age” (at 39!).
    My experience with attending (a few, compulsory) lectures at uni was that they were highly unproductive and most often were delivered by the lecturer in a rote fashion, or else a vehicle for the lecturer to expand his/her ego.
    (Apologies if any of this comes across as boastful – it just that this sort of elitist “ivy league” mentality sh*ts me).

    • Yeh.

      I once read a couple of books about a subject and ended-up knowing far more than students who had studied the subject at University.

      • Yeah, I got into a conversation quite some years back with a visiting uni professor from Norway; doctorates in Math, Physics, and I can’t remember the other two. Occasion was a party, mostly uni academics and students. Poor fella looked lonely, sitting by himself reading a physics text, so I gamely struck up a discussion about physics. We got along like a house on fire, despite his halting English. As the evening wore on, and he became increasingly inebriated, somewhat embarrassingly he began very loudly ridiculing the higher education system in Oz and worldwide to anyone who would listen, and proclaiming my autodidactism as the only way to go … “Don’t go to university!! Waste of time, waste of money! You’ll learn NOT to think!! Just read books like this man!!!”

    • @mander,
      The remote learning model may work well for the theoretical courses like economics, law and many of the arts. It doesn’t work so well for the more hands-on fields like medicine, engineering, dentistry, nursing, or most of the sciences.

  6. casewithscience

    “Australian universities are not good enough, apparently, because students need to read more, and think, and pursue things on their own. ”

    Funny, when I was a law student back in the 90s, I remember always being penalised for assignments where I “thought” for myself. About halfway through the degree I decided to just go with the herd and provide the answers that were wanted, and I got 7s for everything thereafter. Law schools, in particular, are subject to a culture that creates the response from its student population. If the students see a signal that you need to comply in order to get good marks, and that original thought is left in the dustbin, then they will simply follow that approach.

    I must say, the exception to the rule was when a barrister was leading the class (rather than an academic). The barristers would generally mark original thought higher, so long as it was reasoned.

  7. My 2 cents for what it’s worth

    I’ve decided to have my son study at a German technical university because they still have very close ties to industry.
    IMHO Engineering is an applied science its NOT a research science subject, meaning the best engineers come from institutions that prepare their students for real work, sure you still need the math, chemistry, physics …..but you also need the experienced trades person telling you that your fancy design is simply impossible to construct. Engineers need mentors, this means educators cooperating with Industry. For engineers (outside mining) the industry has moved on making it high time for the educators to follow the industry lead.

    If Australia wants to recover (in Engineering) they need to re-engage with Industry, this probably means engaging with US, Singaporean, Chinese or Japanese manufactures.

    • migtronixMEMBER

      That kind of engineering you get at work, I clearly remember my first eng boss (and still my favourite for clear thinking – harsh bustard though) telling me “you have a piece of paper that says I R a engineer, now you have to unlearn all that nonsense and do your apprenticeship”

      And so it was.

    • CB,

      That’s great, but my experience of Australian engineers is that the basic maths, chem, physics is close to non-existent. Otherwise, I wouldn’t find myself repeatedly explaining the concept of conduction to both junior and senior engineers.

      The closer ties to industry is pretty pointless unless the baseline is achieved.

      • migtronixMEMBER

        Unbelievable ! I had 3 years of thermo dynamics in my mech eng degree (grad 96)

      • migtronixMEMBER

        Are you seriously telling me they don’t understand/know Bernoullis principle?

      • They were electrical engineers in general, so possibly not.

        But given temperature limits the performance of certain electrical equipment, and electrical current heats any medium it passes through, being able to reason about where that heat might go could be useful.

        I also used to get narky as a chem eng if I had to explain circuit theory to electrical eng’s.

      • migtronixMEMBER

        @Stat Still wow! I have an EE/IT degree also and I assure heat transfer and materials engineering were also part of the course (classes attended by Chem Eng, Mech Eng, Civil Eng, EE/IT Eng).

        EDIT: In fact I’ve never day a single days work as Mech Eng and I can still tell you that it mostly all boils down to PV/T(1) = PV/T(2) or in EE terms IR/V(1) = IR/V(2).
        First principles should serve every engineer well!

      • @StatSailor
        You’re saying Aussie Uni’s are even worse than I outlined because not only have they lost contact with industry they’ve apparently forgotten how to teach the requisite core skills that create a strong Engineer.

        If that’s your point, then the game is truly over, which is probably just as well because most of the recent Engineering graduates I spoke to are heading off to finance jobs, where everyone knows that project only move ahead when 1+1= 3.

      • I’m an EE (comms specialist), did an intro to heat transfer but only a few weeks and nothing in materials. To be honest my memory is now failing with a lot of the concept (especially the electrical side – as I haven’t practiced it), uni only has a half life of so long.

        It doesn’t impact my job or design. You could easily design a lot of stuff without even knowing 100% the background concept, just by following a few rules of thumb.

      • migtronixMEMBER

        @evilsync yes and no, not sure what you’re designing but if place 0 ohm resistors all over your board thinking they have no cost your circuit is going to bleed EMF, so…

  8. drsmithyMEMBER

    This guy is clearly an old-school academic who thinks the purpose of a University is to be a centre of research and education.

    Not post-secondary-school job training.

    That is the core of his complaint. I must say I agree with him completely.

    The problem is, in Australia, there really isn’t any suitably recognised alternative to “University”. Thus, universities are trying to fulfill a need that should be serviced by technical colleges and other such institutions whose primary purpose should be to perform job training.

    Further, he also obviously thinks that studying for a degree is, and should be considered, a commitment at least equal to that of full-time work. Ie: the idea of “study + work”, where “work” comprises more than single-digit hours in a week, is an oxymoron – either you’re a student, or you’re working.

    • Rumplestatskin

      That has been a debate for many years in Australia, going back at least three decades. But he doesn’t make the point directly.

      I had a section about that but left it out to cut down the piece. I also left out a few points where I do agree – especially about decentralised decision making.

      But the most strange thing is that he thinks competition is the solution, not the problem. The very reason the big universities he adores can function the way they do is because the DON’T have competition. If they did, students would just leave if the going got tough to the next uni that held their hand more.

      • Your comment here leads to the central question “What should universities be competing in?” At the moment, much of the competition between Australian universities revolves around attracting the most students. I’m not sure that this is healthy.

        PS, tertiary education in this country is mostly just a way of disguising youth unemployment these days.

      • drsmithyMEMBER

        But the most strange thing is that he thinks competition is the solution, not the problem. The very reason the big universities he adores can function the way they do is because the DON’T have competition. If they did, students would just leave if the going got tough to the next uni that held their hand more.

        You don’t seem to understand what he wants.

        It is not to have the most research, teachers and students.

        It is to have the _best_ research, teachers and students.

        He thinks the best way to achieve this, is to have Universities compete amongst themselves to attract the best researchers, teachers and students. Apparently they don’t do this at the moment – per the example given that hardly anyone moves interstate, or even out of their own town/city, to attend University (unless they have to). They go whatever their local Uni is, and if there are multiple local institutions (eg: as in Brisbane – UQ, QUT, Griffith), then they go to whichever one correlates in ranking with their high school results.

      • Rumplestatskin

        drsmithy,

        “You don’t seem to understand what he wants.It is not to have the most research, teachers and students.It is to have the _best_ research, teachers and students.”

        Yeah, I get this. He wants the best all in one place instead of spread around. Why? Well he doesn’t say. The top students are there somewhere in the system.

        To your later comment. I’m not sure exactly what you are saying about competition. You are saying that universities adopting the tactics of business in competitive markets, such as branding, bonus offers (ipads etc), making life easy for customers, is all just a show, because the real evidence is that customers don’t have to travel interstate to get their product?

        Think about any other market. If there is competition, you don’t have to go to a different city. That is the very definition of monopoly power. If I had to travel to Melbourne to buy the best car, or pair of shoes, people would be up in arms about the lack of competitiveness.

        What he wants is not universities competing. He wants to give universities monopoly power so that STUDENTS must compete to get in. That is a very different proposition to the one that has been pursued for that past 30 years of tertiary education policy, where students don’t compete, but universities do. It is also one that results in high selectivity of university to those only in the upper end of the income distribution – just like the universities he wishes ours were more like. This is the exact opposite of the policy goals set out over at least the past 20 years.

        To your final point

        “He clearly doesn’t think watching recorded lectures and studying while working near full-time is an effective way to learn, and doesn’t want to be a party to a system that encourages it. He thinks that research, teaching, recruiting and assessment methodologies should be allowed to be different between different faculties”

        Yeah sure, he wants faculty level monopoly power as well! He hates central reporting and standards yet suggests two in his recommendations. I alluded to this problem in my post. Firms competing must offer a brand, a recognisable product. Apple doesn’t let the iPad devision do its own thing, nor do most firms.

        Again, it depends on what you think are appropriate performance measures. If one role of university is to disseminate information, surely all recorded lectures and flexibility for part-time study should be judged favourably. It broadens the number of students able to access the information.

        I certainly do agree that Australia’s university system is not perfect. But the trade of is between broad access and equality of access, and the elite systems of the US and UK. You obviously can’t have a broad/universal elite system.

      • drsmithyMEMBER

        Yeah, I get this. He wants the best all in one place instead of spread around. Why? Well he doesn’t say. The top students are there somewhere in the system.

        Because lots of smart people in the same place will have a multiplicative effect. “On the shoulders of giants”, and all that.

        Better to have 100 people get excellent educations in $FIELD at the best institution for $FIELD, than ten people get average educations in ten different institutions that don’t specialise in it.

        This is pretty much the philosophy companies like Google, Apple and Microsoft are built on. It shouldn’t be a particularly crazy idea ?

        To your later comment. I’m not sure exactly what you are saying about competition. You are saying that universities adopting the tactics of business in competitive markets, such as branding, bonus offers (ipads etc), making life easy for customers, is all just a show, because the real evidence is that customers don’t have to travel interstate to get their product?

        I’m saying that his argument is Universities don’t compete with each other for students – based on their academic abilities – because they “know” most students either can’t be bothered, or don’t have the means, to relocate far from wherever it is they grew up.

        Universities are currently focused on putting bums on seats and attracting ARC grants, not on getting the best and brightest brains into their environments, providing the best educations, and producing the best research.

        Think about any other market. If there is competition, you don’t have to go to a different city. That is the very definition of monopoly power. If I had to travel to Melbourne to buy the best car, or pair of shoes, people would be up in arms about the lack of competitiveness.

        Your premise is that a University degree is a fungible good. Mr Allan clearly believes (and I agree) that premise is wrong. I expect you’ll find most employers would agree as well.

        To stick with your example, there are only a few places in Australia where it is possible to buy something like a Bugatti Veyron. I’m not much of a fashion hound, but I’m willing to bet there’s some fancy brands of shoes that are only stocked in Sydney and/or Melbourne (heh, and maybe Perth, these days) stores, as well.

        Think of it from an employment perspective. If I am an excellent Engineer and want to work for the best Engineering firm in Australia, and that firm only has an office in Sydney, then I have to move to Sydney to work for them. Moreover, that firm has a strong incentive to try and get me to move to Sydney, so they can benefit from my expertise. The second best Engineering firm in the country might be in Melbourne, the third in Brisbane, etc. Those other firms would obviously also benefit from my expertise, and hence my try to convince me (and a bunch of people like me) to move there with promises of a higher salaries. Consequeuntly the injection of expertise in that firm may elevate it to “best in country” status and the cycle repeats with different people.

        Allan’s argument is that this dynamic is missing from our Universities (and at both a national and local level). Students *don’t* look to study at institutions outside of their locale. Universities *don’t* try and attract the best and brightest students from around the country. This is driven from the evidence (which is not presented, but I am assuming is true) that few students relocate to study, and the attitude towards doing so is “why would you bother [they’re all the same]”.

        Yeah sure, he wants faculty level monopoly power as well! He hates central reporting and standards yet suggests two in his recommendations.

        That seems rather unfair. There’s a vast difference between simply publishing information and dictating how faculties must be run.

        I alluded to this problem in my post. Firms competing must offer a brand, a recognisable product. Apple doesn’t let the iPad devision do its own thing, nor do most firms.

        I expect we’d all be surprised by how much independence there is within Apple’s individual product departments, but that’s by the bye.

        An analogy used in the article was with strongly federalist countries (Switzerland, Germany, etc), which would lead me to conclude he likens Faculties to states and Universities to countries.

        If you want a business analogy, I think you’ll find he considers the relationship between Universities and faculties to be more like that between, say, VAG and VW/Audi/Skoda/SEAT/etc.

        Again, it depends on what you think are appropriate performance measures. If one role of university is to disseminate information, surely all recorded lectures and flexibility for part-time study should be judged favourably. It broadens the number of students able to access the information.

        But if you believe the role is to teach, and produce first and foremost people capable of thinking, reasoning, analysing and learning, then just regurgitating information at them could be anything from somewhat helpful to harmful.

        I certainly do agree that Australia’s university system is not perfect. But the trade of is between broad access and equality of access, and the elite systems of the US and UK. You obviously can’t have a broad/universal elite system.

        I don’t really see why you can’t have a system that allows institutions to specialise in particular fields while still making it accessible to all via something like HECS (or whatever they call it now). Just because one University might provide the best Engineering course in the country doesn’t mean three others can’t provide one that’s 75% as good (while one of them simultaneously provides the best medicine course in the country, another the best law course, etc).


    • Further, he also obviously thinks that studying for a degree is, and should be considered, a commitment at least equal to that of full-time work. Ie: the idea of “study + work”, where “work” comprises more than single-digit hours in a week, is an oxymoron – either you’re a student, or you’re working.

      Which seems kind of reasonable. I mean, okay,
      single digit is kind of a low limit, but if you sign up for ‘full time’ education, shouldn’t you expect 30- 50 hours of work on your education per week?

      My engineering school was pretty explicit about the time requirements – people who tried to work more than 15 or so hours either dropped out or went part time, regardless of whether the timetable fit around their work schedule (although the level of lab work meant the timetable was fairly work unfriendly)

      • flyingfoxMEMBER

        In eng undergrad I had between 26-36 contact hours a week. Two mates of mine doing accounting atleast during 2 semesters has 12-16 hours. They fixed they timetables to 2 days a week and assumed I was lazy for not working.

      • So if studying accounting, why not work?

        Maybe law at the University of Queensland just isn’t that demanding, from a time perspective, or maybe law students at UQ socialise with the accounting students too much.

        This just seems a fairly simple expectations management issue – I doubt that many medical students, for example, are under any illusions regarding the workload.

  9. The lectures are largely a waste of time and grossly inefficient from the students point of view and the univeristies point of view. They require multiple large buildings on lots of land, lots of transportation usage and travel time.

    They should sack him for refusing to record lectures using all the benefits of modern technology.

    The real problems is that the unis have grossly undermined their credibility by their unwillingness to have written exams with proper identification and to include loss of marks for inabiilty to write and speak clear English.

    Anyone who has taken on a few foreign student graduates would be able to tell them this.

    I have even heard people arranging on mibile phones on public transport to do papers for other people for uni essays.

    Remember the Newcastle marking scandal of only a few years ago?

    • drsmithyMEMBER

      They should sack him for refusing to record lectures using all the benefits of modern technology.

      He obviously believes that recorded lectures do not provide a good education. Probably because they are not interactive and because they allow students to multitask their “study” with other things.

      My personal experiences and beliefs around effective teaching would lead me to agree with that view.

      • I’m a (mature age) uni student now.

        Roughly one third of my lectures are delivered with passion, enthusiasm and a high level of specialist knowledge. I think I speak for most of the class when I say that we really look forward to these lectures, and learn a lot from the opportunity to ask questions, and respond to questions thrown at us.

        The other two thirds are best watched at home at 1.3x playback speed, so that they only take up 39 minutes of my life instead of 50.

        Also, almost everyone I know has timetable clashes, which means that refusing to record lectures is just plain selfish. Similarly, I’ve arranged to have Wednesdays free not so that I can work, but so that I don’t spend more hours traveling than actually in class. If academics want us students to organize our whole lives around a couple of hours a week spent with them, then (most of them) need to lift their game.

      • johnyaku,

        +1000

        Such technology was not available in ’96. Had it been, the proportion worth attending would have been closer to 20%.

      • drsmithyMEMBER

        I don’t disagree with your points, and they are certainly the reality of a particular subset of students, but they don’t really refute the position.

        It’s unclear to me whether by “record” he really means “record and watch later”, or whether a live broadcast (and accompanying potential interaction from online students” would be considered acceptable.

        Even if the latter, my guess would be this is seen as suboptimal.

        As I said elsewhere, this ultimately boils down to him clearly being an old-school academic who thinks studying for a degree should be done for the purposes of learning, not employment, and should be given a time commitment equivalent to a full time job.

        I would argue – as I suspect would he – that if what you want is job training, then you should be at a technical college or something similar, not a University. The problem we have in Australia is that there aren’t any.

      • if what you want is job training, then you should be at a technical college or something similar, not a University

        No, I’m actually one of those idiots who is largely motivated by the love of learning and who doesn’t have a clear picture of what kind of job I want at the end of it. I also have old fashioned ideas about actually /mastering/ the material, rather than just “understanding the core concepts” or “scraping through to get a qualification”.

        If the best practices of all the courses that I’m doing (including, of course, live lectures delivered with enthusiasm, experience and a solid grasp of the subject matter) were combined, then the resulting teaching method would be quite good.

        But it takes two to tango. I get outstanding results despite the (often) poor teaching, because I am motivated and disciplined (this time ’round — I wish I could say the same about my first degree!) But this is not true of the majority of students. Perhaps it never will be .. but motivation and discipline are both things that can be fostered — something the current system does not do very well.

      • migtronixMEMBER

        Has he heard of Twitter? It’s one thing to want to deliver “the best” educational experience but if he’s response is my way or the highway I’m confident a just as good educational experience can be had elsewhere. He is making himself redundant and complaining to us about it. He can blow me.

      • drsmithyMEMBER

        No, I’m actually one of those idiots who is largely motivated by the love of learning and who doesn’t have a clear picture of what kind of job I want at the end of it. I also have old fashioned ideas about actually /mastering/ the material, rather than just “understanding the core concepts” or “scraping through to get a qualification”.

        Right, so his argument would be, I assume, that your study should be a full-time job and you spend 5 days a week, 8 hours a day, at University attending lectures, attending tutorials, or studying (ideally with other students).

        The reality is you might not be able to do that as a mature-age student. That’s unfortunate, but the system needs to be built to cater to the majority who do not have that compromise.

      • I do take it seriously and put in the hours, and I have the results to prove it.

        But I also refuse to waste my time attending Chemistry lectures where the lecturer will spend five minutes explaining how to do simultaneous equations or how to use the quadratic formula. That’s Year 8 maths, and Year 12 maths is supposed to be a prerequisite.

        Any lecturer that wants me to attend their classes will have to provide more than I get from reading the notes or the textbook. At a minimum, that means enthusiasm. Like I said, about one in three do manage to do that, the rest don’t.

        I also work, because it is not possible to support a family on Austudy. And you can only just scrape by on Austudy as a single person if you share a room and live off beans and rice.

        The only people that can genuinely afford to devote all their energy to study and not work are people who are still bludging off mum and dad.

        See my comment below about rewarding academic excellence if you want to get academic excellence.

      • drsmithyMEMBER

        Easy, tiger, I’m not questioning your commitment or achievements.

        I’m simply pointing out that the University system is – and should be – optimised for people who *do* have the ability to study full time, and that Allan will have the same perspective.

        Good or bad lecturers are an entirely separate issue.

        Your point about Austudy is also quite valid, and I’m fairly sure the argument there would be that the real problem is that Austudy is inadequate.

  10. In general I agree with the article, but like Allan’s rant it doesn’t bring much new to the table. Two comments:

    “So where does research output fit into his competitive picture? It certainly doesn’t raise revenues […]”

    Are you kidding me? Without good research you won’t be very high up in the major rankings that include research, which means you are less likely to attract potentially students, especially international students, which as you pointed out are critical for revenue now. Plus with good research you will get free air-time in the media. Even if people don’t remember exactly what it was about, it raises awareness for the “brand”. This is one of the main reasons why some teaching-only unis in Australia pushed into research. And I can tell you that this strategy has been successful at least for some unis.

    Apart from that important aspect research probably won’t raise revenue for the uni, but the idea is to raise “revenue” for the society/economy ;). Something which some people here don’t seem to understand…

    BTW, the question on how to rank research output has been subject of an endless debate, there are countless of articles and probably as many opinions…

    “My general impression, from the point of view of economics only, is that they are very good at solving the standard maths problems, and very bad at all things practical. And more often then not, constrained in their thinking to what they have been taught.”

    Sorry this quote is not the worst by any means, but I have to say +1 for “bogan-esque comments”. The ignorance and arrogance of many Australians when it comes to academics never ceases to amaze me. A lot of them don’t realise that a number of successful tech companies have academic roots. Oh wait, I forgot that there are not many of these in Australia…

    Seriously, in my field engineering/computer science there are academic academics as well, but there are also many that are highly engaged with industry. The only problem is they are mostly engaged with industry overseas, as in Australia it’s sales and support mostly.

    • migtronixMEMBER

      RESTful web services are the stand out example of academia meets real world – but there aren’t many others man.

  11. My personal experience in economics is that a degree gets you in the door, then it is all down to experience.
    Rumple,
    It sounds as though your motivation for going to uni was to get a job in your chosen field. No problem with that, that is a perfectly valid motivation for going to uni and one of the intended functions of universities.
    However it is not the only or even main purpose of universities.
    Universities are about sharing and expanding knowledge. They should teach students how to solve problems that have never been solved before and how to expand the knowledge base of not only themselves but of the human race as a whole (through new discoveries). They should also provide facilities and an environment for their researchers to do those things.
    It is on these points that I think Australia falls behind.

    • Rumplestatskin

      “Universities are about sharing and expanding knowledge. They should teach students how to solve problems that have never been solved before and how to expand the knowledge base of not only themselves but of the human race as a whole (through new discoveries).”

      I certainly agree that is a key role. But for many decades this has not been a priority in the Australian system. If you read the Bradley Review (that I linked in a comment at the top of the thread), the role of universities is primarily seen as one of technical training. In this role they are meant to be accessible to student with from all socio-economic backgrounds. There is a huge emphasis in using university access as a way to even the playing field for the disadvantaged.

      Which is a noble goal. But is in conflict with their other role that you describe

      • They are only in conflict in the sense that one brings in money (no matter how poor the product) and the other costs money. They are aligned in the sense that the more students you have, the more cash you get and therefore the more research you can do. Arguably, the more research you do, the higher quality of personnel you can attract and the higher quality of teaching you will deliver. Uni’s are, however, hamstrung by legislation (caps on uni fees) and ministerial decision (direct funding models). They have no reasonable way of increasing their funding in order to fund increased research. Competition would allow this increase. More research -> better quality teaching -> more demand -> higher fees -> more research. Changing the government funding models could arguably give the same result without increases to student fees.

        the role of universities is primarily seen as one of technical training
        This is exactly the problem. Until our universities are seen and treated as places of excellence and endeavour (with no immediate pay-back) rather than schools or colleges producing tomorrow’s workers, nothing will change. They will continue their descent into filling the traditional role of technical colleges.

      • flyingfoxMEMBER

        They are aligned in the sense that the more students you have, the more cash you get and therefore the more research you can do.

        This isn’t necessarily correct. Most uni’s seem to run like two separate enterprises moulded into one. Research and Teaching.

        Also the more students model just leads to better qualified macdonalds workers. As an example, most academics would argue that we are producing too many phds. The reason? Students are cheap labor. Instead of training someone, we are just getting someone to work on a project for 3 years, essentially for free.

      • Rumplestatskin

        Sure, you are right only if research is an investment that attracts students. I don’t think that is really the case here, with universities offering free iPads and steak knives and so forth. A dollar in the marketing budget probably attracts more students than a dollar of research.

        Isn’t it better to focus on the on the stuff that earns revenues? Students, students, ARC grants, students.

        I’m not sure what you mean by this

        “They have no reasonable way of increasing their funding in order to fund increased research. Competition would allow this increase. ”

        That’s what the whole ARC system is about. It is very competitive. What sort of competition do you imagine would enable increased funding?

      • @flyingfox,
        I’m not sure if you’re disagreeing with me or adding to what I’ve said because I can’t see anything in your comment that contradicts my comment.

        So… yes?

      • flyingfoxMEMBER

        @DMc

        I am disagreeing with you in that that as it stands, more undergrads don’t do much for the research side. Moreover, for the majority, they just want to get a degree. To cater for this, uni’s just hire sessional lecturers etc etc. At the end of the day, the students get a degree and uni’s get money.

        Research staff do just research and barely teach. The research component, from a marketing perspective is only there to show up in rankings + the money they bring in through grants etc and commercialisation.

        As it stands, all competition is doing is creating degree factories, even in the postgrad department.

        This is exactly the problem. Until our universities are seen and treated as places of excellence and endeavour (with no immediate pay-back) rather than schools or colleges producing tomorrow’s workers, nothing will change. They will continue their descent into filling the traditional role of technical colleges.

        Agree with this. The whole system needs a major overhaul.

      • @Rumple,
        We may be on the same page more than either of us realise.

        only if research is an investment that attracts students. I don’t think that is really the case here,
        I agree and think it’s because uni’s are seen as technical colleges. Also the funding model is largely student-population based, so it doesn’t give enough latitude for one organisation to really stand out ahead of the pack like MIT does over its competitors (for example). See next point…

        Sure, you are right only if research is an investment that attracts students.
        It generates positive reputation, which attracts higher grad salaries, which attracts students. Or so the theory goes.

        I don’t think that is really the case here, with universities offering free iPads and steak knives and so forth.
        Again, because per-student uni funding is virtually flat, there isn’t any scope for one uni to get ahead of its peers. It’s like the AFL salary cap, evening out the competition. The uni’s do the best they can with the resources they have and part of that is to offer low-cost gimmicks.

        A dollar in the marketing budget probably attracts more students than a dollar of research.
        Absolutely. But if one uni could charge higher fees than its competitors, that balance may shift. The researching uni would not only attract more students but charge them higher fees, so $1 of research may yield more than $1 of fees.

        Isn’t it better to focus on the on the stuff that earns revenues? Students, students, ARC grants, students.
        Under the current system that’s exactly what happens. I’m saying we should change the funding system so that student numbers is no longer the end-game.

        That’s what the whole ARC system is about.
        Yes, but ARC does not provide enough of a uni’s total budget to shift their focus from maximising student numbers to increasing the volume or quality of research.

        What sort of competition do you imagine would enable increased funding?
        Competition for student fees not based solely on student numbers but by removing restrictions on fees charged. High quality universities would be able to charge a small number of students a high level of fees. The downside to total de-restriction is the inequitable system of the USA. We need to find some middle ground because at the moment we are giving access to all but in the process destroying quality for all.

        Edit:
        @ff,
        All universities that I have been involved with require their research staff to do at least some teaching. Some hate it, others love it. So while there may be some segregation of teaching from research as you have described, I don’t believe there is absolute segregation as you seem to suggest.

    • Alex Heyworth

      How about life time earnings? They may have to make up for reduced earnings during the years they are studying.

    • drsmithyMEMBER

      What is wrong with measuring the effectiveness of Uni education policy by measuring the income levels of graduates over time?

      Because an excellent University education in a scientifically important field, and subsequent extensive contribution to the base of human knowledge does not always (indeed, I’d go so far as to say very rarely) lead to a high income.

      When you have people with degrees working at McDonalds and driving taxis, you have very poor value for money Uni education policy.

      Sure, but that’s because employers (especially in America) use inflated educational requirements as a way to a) discriminate against job applicants and b) promote higher levels of “skilled immigration” to suppress wages.

      The glut of “degree qualified” people is a perfectly rational response on their behalf to employers who want applicants to have a degree for just about any job more advanced than a secretary.

      • flyingfoxMEMBER

        +many.

        The glut of “degree qualified” people is a perfectly rational response on their behalf to employers who want applicants to have a degree for just about any job more advanced than a secretary.

        Not to mention a degree that would be utterly useless for their work and therefore a waste of time and money for the worker.

      • migtronixMEMBER

        Absolute correct! Otherwise MBAs would be the best education anyone could get — its probably one of the worst!!

    • Rumplestatskin

      Thanks Jake. Yeah I have read that. I’m doing the rounds with various journals at the moment and learning about the tribal mentality of the discipline.

      • I just read the link, didn’t get much from it, but the link in the blog post to Boettke’s latest paper with Coyne/Leeson on contra whig political economy history looks really interesting…

  12. Perhaps the best way to promote better learning outcomes is to encourage competition between STUDENTS.

    And by “encourage”, I mean /reward/ students with excellent results.

    And by “reward”, I don’t just mean good marks, a nod from the Dean, and a crack at Honours or postgrad, followed by overqualified unemployment — I mean immediate financial rewards.

    My uni offers a range of scholarships for various categories of disadvantaged students studying various specialist courses. I have no problem with this, but what if…

    .. the top 2% in each course had their HECS fees waived?
    .. the next 3% had their HECS halved?
    .. students with a Distiction average received an extra $100 in Austudy a week? or an extra $200 for a High Distinction average? (which would make it almost possible to live on Austudy without taking a part time job..)

    All these things would cost money, but I’m pretty certain that they would be more cost-effective at raising the overall standard of learning than all of the shiny new buildings that most unis seem to devote all their energies towards building.

  13. How does it go again – “never mind the quality, just feel the width” ( money )
    Seriously, how much learnin does it take to flip burgers or plant trees. With any amount of luck we will also hold back the knowledge of several Asian countries – if they ever return home ( with or without Aust. homes & farms )

  14. Too late in the week for me to be thinking bout this, but anyway here goes. Apologies for the apparently random thoughts. Kudos Rumples for the passion!

    Firstly uni’s serve multiple functions, lets be absolutely clear on that. I’d suggest undergrad degrees are almost entirely rinse repeat type coursework ( done a couple in different faculties). I was hardly asked to think until an Honours project. Most of this would be perfectly suited to tech schools.

    My real learning was done in a PhD, mostly applications of classical mechanics to modern technology. Nothing like reading Kelvin’s original papers to learn fundamentals (the stuff he got right…). How many people get the opportunity to do this? Not many. It was with a group that was certainly world class, in an austrlian uni, and there are plenty of these around, lets not kid ourselves. There is excellent work being done here, and the high performers work their asses off.

    The problem is the distribution – it is far from a normal distribution, thats for sure. The stellar performers need to be left alone, and the poorer need to be looked at (either individuals, depts or entire “unis”).

    Clear objectives need to be outlined, both from govt, each uni, each faculty and each school. I’m certainly not talking about business plans, just some simple objectives that are reflected in the funding model. Ridiculously, this does not occur.

    As for metrics, academics go nuts for this sh)t. The fact is that the guy that “invented” my field was a Prof at CalTech, and his h-index is about 4. That’s because he was an engineer. His contribution to society has been immense, but he wouldn’t even register on the metric-de-jour. It’s very easy to work out who is and isn’t producing, let’s not kid ourselves.

    We do have a mobility issue that reduces our international competitiveness, but it is not the students – it is the academics themselves! I know a number of the G8 unis that have very low academic staff turnover rates because people get very comfortable in their city of choice, and won’t move elsewhere. This leads to an unhealthy rentseeking (there’s that word!) and almost cannibalistic culture that makes the bitchiness on MKR look like kindergarten.

    The whole system needs looking at. Good people leave, the performers who stay are killing themselves, and ultimately the country suffers.

    • +1

      Australian universities are too incestuous – in stark contrast to Americans.

      But this trait is not unique to universities – just look at the relationship between the state governments.

    • migtronixMEMBER

      Quite right but I, for instance, used to go to the math & phiz library to read the original works of Zermelo – Fraenkle in set theory for instance. This was as undergrad and I did because the lecturer made no sense to me so, as is my default position, I went back to first principles. Did the same Kepler or Aristotle for trig. You don’t have to be a PhD to read a book dude.

      EDIT : engineers seem to be very well represented here for a finance forum – what the hell? I thought I was the only nutter

      • flyingfoxMEMBER

        EDIT : engineers seem to be very well represented here for a finance forum – what the hell? I thought I was the only nutter

        I think by their nature, engineer’s want to know how things work. How everything works.

        Having said that, I am more surprised at the amount of PhD’s and academics around.

      • JacksonMEMBER

        @flyingfox “how everything works”…. Guilty.

        @mig.. I was a lazy undergrad! Didn’t get found out until i had to convince some clever people that i legitimately knew what i was talking about. Got taught first principles in high school by the best teacher i ever had, just forgot about it as a methodology for the intervening years. Now i can’t live without it, it’s a bloody curse. I’m generally happy in my newtonian world…

  15. Rumplestatskin

    For anyone still reading, here is an interesting tidbit from Chomsky about the same ‘dumbing down’ of US universities.

    On the role of competition and corporatisation:

    “When universities become corporatized, as has been happening quite systematically over the last generation as part of the general neoliberal assault on the population, their business model means that what matters is the bottom line.”

    On the central administration:

    “The university is probably the social institution in our society that comes closest to democratic worker control. Within a department, for example, it’s pretty normal for at least the tenured faculty to be able to determine a substantial amount of what their work is like: what they’re going to teach, when they’re going to teach, what the curriculum will be. And most of the decisions about the actual work that the faculty is doing are pretty much under tenured faculty control.

    Now, of course, there is a higher level of administrators that you can’t overrule or control. The faculty can recommend somebody for tenure, let’s say, and be turned down by the deans, or the president, or even the trustees or legislators. It doesn’t happen all that often, but it can happen and it does. And that’s always a part of the background structure, which, although it always existed, was much less of a problem in the days when the administration was drawn from the faculty and in principle recallable.”

    • migtronixMEMBER

      as part of the general neoliberal assault on the population,

      Still reading!!! Cheers 🙂