ROGER SCOTT. Response to Gittins on higher education – Part 1.

Jan 24, 2018

‘Ross Gittins says We’ve turned our unis into aimless, money-grubbing exploiters of students (Canberra Times, 17 September 2017]

What is there to say about Gittins’ comments, I was asked by John Menadue.  How valid are his general contentions and how valid are his criticisms?   Like the curate’s egg (and the university system as a whole) it is good in parts but Gittins is unfair in some of his generalisations. 

Ross Gittins is an influential economist and analyst of public policy, so I propose in best academic traditions to subject his article to close textual analysis – taking his words in non-random order within the context of his overall proposition. Who knows? My comments might even turn from a Menadue invitation into a conference paper worth credit points for future promotion and research funding and even publication after peer review – only I’m so geriatric as to be beyond these fleshpots of temptation. And I would want to start by adding a couple of other words to Gittins, namely ‘the’ and ‘staff’.

Even though they want to be, not all universities are equal.

George Orwell reflected on the evolving inequality between pigs and other farm animals. Within the university system, differences appear as several shades of inequality. Declaring personal interests as is required for such heights of academe, I must also identify myself as one of those oddballs Gittins sees as constituting ‘a minority of academics who take pride in lecturing well’. As mentioned in earlier Menadue pieces, I bear the stigmata from a now defunct set of institutions called Colleges of Advanced Education. These CAEs and the state-owned variety of TAFE institutions have left a legacy within the ‘lower ranks of real universities’ where vocational preparation is taken very seriously and the output in terms of students’ sense of engagement rates very highly. So ‘our unis’ are not all the same, although they aspire to be treated equally. As Glyn Davis has pointed out in The Australian Idea of a University [Melbourne University Press, 2017] the pressure of the Unified National System is constantly towards meeting a uniform set of performance criteria which are seen as emblematic of ‘real universities’. Thus his recent book is about ‘the’ singular Australian idea of a university.

Exploitation and happiness

But do all students suffer equally from these ‘exploiters‘ identified by Gittins? An analysis of the Australian Government’s ‘Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching’ (QILT) employer satisfaction survey for 2017 reported that ’employers are far more happy with graduates from smaller universities that those from the bigger Group of Eight [see Singhal P, ‘The universities with the highest employer satisfaction ratings’, Sydney Morning Herald, 8 January 2018; also Yezdani O, ‘What-makes-a-good-university-academics-and-students-have-different-ideasThe Conversation, 25 October 2017]

The Brisbane Courier-Mail provided an analysis of the QILT survey which pointed to rising levels of university student unemployment and warned that ‘the Federal Government is pushing for student employment outcomes to be included as a performance measure for universities wanting to receive increased funding’ [Killoran M, ‘Graduate to dole queue’, Courier-Mail, 12 January 2018].

Whatever the reliability of student survey data, the figures bear out my own gut reaction that not all students feel exploited and the most satisfied come from the non-metropolitan locations. Cynics might suggest that James Cook University and the University of the Sunshine Coast may offer seaside delights to students unrelated to intellectual challenge and vocational relevance, but it is hard to apply the same explanation to Wollongong which is at the head of the NSW list.

The impact of local enthusiasm

The University of the Sunshine Coast only came into existence because the Queensland University of Technology wanted to divest itself of all campus activity outside a narrowly circumscribed metropolitan area. Federal-State politics then dictated that the existing campus needed to be elevated to ‘full’ university status despite its initial pigmy enrolment size. But even here the pressures for uniformity has over time meant that the University of the Sunshine Coast needed to reach towards ‘real university’ status by acquiring a medical school. It achieved this by heavy political lobbying and the aid of borrowing places from Griffith University, which had earlier been ensnared into offering Health Sciences on the Gold Coast. More recently, further inland towards the main northern traffic artery, there have been serious proposals to offer yet another university for inhabitants apparently beyond the catchment of existing institutions [Moore T, ‘Plan to build university at PetrieBrisbane Times, 23 April 2015].  As one local close to events remarked, a campus of USC might be enough for the time being, but local councillors seem to believe that their council’s status is greatly elevated by having its own ‘real’ university.

Are all courses equally exploitative?

The question needs to be asked as to whether Gittins is correct in identifying the whole system as exploiters of students. Just as some students in some places are very happy to be where they are, so some students in some courses ought to be happy. They are the beneficiaries of internal cost transfers in their direction. Financial arrangements allow university central managers to provide help for some faculties to cover the costs of expensive courses which attract prestige and status, by soaking the providers of popular but nevertheless inexpensive courses such as Law and Management. A Vice-Chancellor who did not want these ‘milch-cow’ courses in his or her university’s profile would be guilty of dereliction of duty, whatever the ideological adventurism articulated at the time of the establishment of places like Macquarie, Griffith, Flinders and Murdoch [see Davis G, ch3 ‘Attempts to leave the path’]. Subsequent Vice Chancellors tended to come from ‘real’ universities and had a different mental framework.

Research as a talisman

The same process of cross-subsidisation applies to processes for providing funds for research from income generated from undergraduate teaching. The third component of Davis’s trilogy of characteristics of the Australian university – alongside ‘metropolitanism’ and ‘comprehensivism’ – is ‘researchism’. Universities have participated with enthusiasm in a range of national and international ranking exercises where the core value is always research standing. Some of these scales now make a nod to some algorithm which includes teaching, but research is seen to be the heart of a ‘real’ university. The component of vocational preparation took second billing to research. Even though many in the community were unconvinced right from the colonial start (and many remain so), the universities and the compliant policy-makers after 1967 adopted research excellence as the benchmark for excellence and sought to staff their institutions accordingly. This was particularly hard on former CAE and TAFE staff who had often brought with them the benefits of many years of vocational practice acquired before doctoral qualifications came into vogue.

Internal Inequality among staff

Staff have become divided along a fault-line, with researchers increasingly segregated from those primarily engaged as teachers. Research achievement through gaining access to funding is the route to professional advancement and much time is invested in communicating about and rewarding staff who show they can win and continue to win research funding from general pools of government support or industry-specific projects. Those who happen not to be good at these much-valued entrepreneurial skills were confined to the hulks of undergraduate and masters by coursework. Others may work in disciplines where research is not funding-driven but relies more on access to time for reading and contemplation- these ‘drones’ tend to miss out at every career stage. This is identified by Michael Whelan as a process by which the government’s proposed higher education cuts will be felt in the classroom, not the lab [The Conversation, 31 October 2017]. This was described in detail by Andrew Norton in his Grattan Institute Report [‘The cash nexus: how teaching funds research in Australian universities’, November 2015] and in more dramatic language by several contributions by Richard Hils [‘Teflon universities need closer public scrutiny’, ‘Selling students short: why you won’t get the education you deserve’, ‘Whackademia: An insider’s account of the troubled university’].

Horses for Courses

A standard expectation for a successful researcher is to be relieved of teaching obligations and the program teaching shortfall has to be taken up within tight departmental or faculty budgets by non-tenured appointments. Since the continuity of the research funding cannot be guaranteed, so the tenure of the replacement teacher cannot be guaranteed. This means that much of the undergraduate teaching ends up being provided by an under-class of part-timers seeking work experience to supplement their other sources of income, perhaps postgraduate scholarships or working in the local cannery or convenience store. Or they are the residual full-time staff who are not adept at writing research proposals. Not so much drones as ‘worker bees’ in the academic hive. Neither have prospects of finding the time to build the capability to compete for the scarce tenurable appointments on offer at middle levels in an organisation dominated by research ‘queen bees’ and also-rans. Or, to change the metaphor back to Animal Farm, the research-deprived seek to ingratiate themselves like Molly or constantly work harder like Boxer.

One of my contemporaries is a leading political scientist. Hal Colebatch’s response to my draft illustrates the ludicrous effects of the organisational culture institutionalising the process of research funding with another memorable equine simile. He commented;

  1. I haven’t seen Glyn’s book … but I would agree with him that we have to think of this in systemic terms, and this means thinking about the post-school experience and the relationship between education and work.
  2. And thinking like this means seeing it as a system even though we know that it’s not a system: the term is a heuristic, not an expected state (and therefore grounds for indignant critique).
  3. ‘University’ is simply a label for a recognisable institutionalisation of practice: what the practice is, and why it is valued, are empirical variables, which vary over time, place and people.
  4. As institutions, universities (like any institutions) have logics of action which may be at variance with, and possible in competition with, the motives for supporting universities or the expected outcomes of doing so.
  5. Universities were founded for diverse reasons, not always educational, and have had a diversity of functions. Texts like Newman’s ‘The Idea of a University’ were reform bids, not definitions. From the start, Australian universities had a stronger vocational orientation than their English counterparts, and the current orientation to research was not evident when I was an undergraduate in the 1960s.
  6. The CAEs (and here I am biased by my experience of one of the best) had an even more specific focus on the vocational application of academic knowledge, a concern for the method and quality of teaching, and a broad lateral accountability – to academe, to the industry base, to government, and to the community – exemplified by the five-yearly exercise in the re-accreditation of programs.
  7. The obsession with research has seen the universities hoist with their own petard. Having dreamed up this narrative about the universities as the fount of knowledge, they had to demonstrate that they were pumping it out, and this required a metric, so behold, the dollar value of research grants became the measure of the socially-beneficial knowledge that each university was contributing to the grateful community. I recall a piece of puff for Glyn himself (perhaps when he became VC at Melbourne) saying that he had won over $3m in research grants. I also recall that in 2006 (when, as it happened, I had generated half of all the publications in our school) I was refused a travel grant to go to IPSA because I was only ‘marginally research active’ – this because (not needing them) I had not applied for any research grants. As someone said, it’s like awarding the Melbourne Cup to the horse that eats the most oats, but it’s an inevitable consequence of the institutionalisation.
  8. It also has the consequences that everyone has to apply for a grant, and since there is no increase in the total available, the proportion of successful applicants could drop down to 15%, meaning that for five out of six applicants, the time spent writing the application has been wasted. The response of university management is not to contest the logic of the system, but to build up their own research bureaucracy to try to work out ways to game the system, and by advising applicants on how to write a successful application, efficacy of advice unknown, which deflects worker frustration into textual subtleties.
  9. Experience suggests that small institutions with a clear sense of their mission will be more successful at transmitting useful knowledge, and will offer a better experience for both students and staff. The example that stands out for me is the School for Advanced Urban Studies at Bristol, which started out as an autonomous and self-financing postgrad school, and was outstandingly successful and an intellectual leader. But in time it got drawn into the university as the School for Policy Studies, the work-wise but uncredentialled staff were replaced with headhunted star publishers, other institutions took over the running on workplace-relevance, and today it is a corporate success but is vocationally and intellectually marginal.

In my next contribution ( Part 2) I will explore the issue of the loss of diversity on the Australian scene as well as the impact of other changed approaches to funding which Gittins labels as ‘money-grubbing’ and others defend as sound corporate management practices.

Roger Scott has held academic management posts as Head of Department, President of an Academic Board, Dean of Arts, Principal of a CAE, briefly a Vice-Chancellor and was Director General of Education during the Goss years in Queensland.   He has taught political science and public administration in Uganda, Northern Ireland, Canada, several Australian states and Canberra.  He has served on several state and national committees relating to aspects of tertiary education.  He currently occupies an honorary position in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Queensland.  

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