Monday, 30 November 2009

Pictures of Melbourne University

Recently, I posted this picture from the University of Sydney, affectionately representing that institution's tendency to vague and confusing guidelines. The cloister is quite a pleasant place to wait for further instructions, so we forgive the vagueness.



But as far as cloisters go, I thought Melbourne's was beautiful, when I visited that university a few weeks ago, though a little over-cloistered with the chain:

 

I wondered whether perhaps this massively ornate carpark entrance was just a little OTT:




and whether anyone had informed the university that Professor Florey had died in 1968 and would be not be able to walk that way:



But it takes a powerful marketing department to convince the university that it is a good idea to do this:



This poster on a beautiful sandstone tower in no way makes me want to study an executive arts masters at Melbourne and that is only partly because I could not see how a woman sitting with some empty plastic chairs was going to do that. You can see the ad here, an ad I also find disturbing for "At last, a school that teaches you how to think, not what to think" - what was the Arts faculty doing before?

However, the poorly selected picture (and text) is the least of the problems with sticking marketing posters on lovely old buildings.

The problem with this is what it represents - that marketing a new masters program (a program that on the surface, I should say, sounds like a good idea) has a higher priority for the university than intellectual integrity. This might sound silly, for it is just a building, not a textbook, but symbols are important as we know and this really sends a message - and the wrong one - in my view.

I have a feeling that the recent development in attaching equivalent power to professional managers as to academic governance is a part of this problem - for example recent news about universities giving professional managers unearned professorial titles. Another example at Melbourne was this:



The problem with this is not that professional managers do unimportant work in universities, on the contrary (and I've been one myself, so I hardly want to knock them). But universities are communities of scholars and must be run by them.

Just to be clear - the problem is not confined to Melbourne University by any means.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Wrong answers to the right problem

Few things are as boring as listening to a room full of intellectuals whinging. Which is not to suggest there is nothing to whinge about: 50% of university teaching in Australia is being done by casual staff and those with better employment have utterly unenviable working hours and conditions. But whinging, as Meaghan Morris pointed out in today's ambitiously titled 'State of the Industry' conference, is like a reverse Midas' touch, turning every glimmer of gold into shit.

This is probably why our most prominent Higher Education researcher, Simon Marginson, prefers an optimistic approach, emphasising the privilege and pleasure of academic work and the reality that highly qualified intellectuals have more agency in Australian society than nearly anyone.

But I was pretty sure he noticed (I was in the front row) my growing look of horror as this optimism led, very unfortunately, to what I consider to be the wrong conclusions.

Marginson's talk focused on a division of the responsibilities we have to our paid work versus our academic work, wherein the paid work requires the performance measures, which we put up with to do the work we intrinsically wish to do. To me this was wrong conclusion #1: if we're so intrinsically motivated, why all the performance measures?

He said, too, that academics should stay out of management: universities were now so large that their management is a specialised job, best left to the specialists. If we stay out of these things that don't concern us, tick the performance boxes without question, we'll have time to focus on the creative stuff we want. While I agree we need specialist managers these days, wrong conclusion #2 is that academics should stay out of it: if academics stay out of university governance, the nature and purpose of the university will shift to align to the priorities of the accountants that run them. Very bad idea.

We then had a wonderful presentation by Genevieve Kelly, presenting the results of some excellent NTEU research on academic labour. It was during the discussion that followed that Professor Marginson made the final, most threatening wrong conclusion #3. The argument went like this:
a) the only way to improve the situation is to improve the bottom line
b) the barrier to improving the bottom line is treasury
c) all treasury understand is economics
d) we need to demonstrate that university knowledge helps the (knowledge) economy. He acknowledged the risks of utilitarian outcomes, but...

This is a strategy that has been frankly disastrous for universities for 25 years and is unlikely to succeed now. Eventually, universities become what they are funded to be and the reality is that we do not want universities to be for this (and partly they already are, since they've been trying this approach since the early 1980s - this is part of our problem and is definitely not the solution).

We need to demonstrate that knowledge underpins a safe, civil, ethical, healthy and prosperous democracy. We need to alert the public to the danger to Australia's intellectual integrity when 50% of the nation's future professionals, teachers, thinkers and researchers are being taught by substitute teachers.

We need to acknowledge that some academics have more agency than others: and senior professors from Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Queensland universities more than most. Sessional staff, PhD students, early career academics, and aging ex-CAE teachers in small universities do not all have (much) agency all of the time - and those who have more should stand up for them.

We need to show that academics love their work, are inspired to do it and don't want less time doing it - and we don't therefore need to count every minute of their time and measure every ounce of their ideas as if knowledge has a productivity measure. When we do this, we waste their time, we inhibit knowledge, we make knowledge production seem like a fight rather than a delight and we stop universities being everything they so easily could be.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Exams and exploration

It is not often I agree with this man, and I don't entirely here either, but I did think something about this observation of the old exam culture was something I think it is a pity we seem to be losing:
"Exams enable students to put off their work until the end of the year and that strikes me as an immensely valuable thing...if you [have] a system of continuous assessment...you have a pretty hard life. I like for the Faculty of Arts the idea that you sit around for a long time discussing things in coffee shops and pubs and quadrangles and anywhere else that you can get some seating and, finally, towards the end of the year you've got to get some work done... That's a good way, I think, to conduct an Arts education; students educate each other in the course of this."

David Malet Armstrong, Oral History Interview, National Library of Australia

I can't think of a title that isn't rude

"I believe that our national destiny requires us to break firmly with the past."

Don Aitkin, 1987 Copland Memorial Lecture, Canberra

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Pictures of universities

You can tell from my my recent half-written blog posts, introducing topics I promise to come back to and then forget, that I am in a highly fragmented research phase right now. I am trying to fill in the gaps of research done more systematically, period-by-period in the past, so I am in lots of decades and also in lots of different university archives.

I like visiting other universities. I think even just the feel of a campus gives away something of organisational culture. It might be my imagination, but I often think I can 'feel' something of the environment that led to the historical events I am researching. I certainly felt that way at Monash: though it was probably assisted by the fact they were in the middle of a student election when I visited.

I've started taking photos with my phone on campuses and here are two from our biggest universities in Sydney.

Firstly, UNSW: a sign letting us know this is THE quadrangle lawn, which should be respected by not playing ball games. From the angle here you can see the postmodern cloister and it looks kind of Quad-like.



But from the other side, the angle I first saw it from, it appears that it is a patch of lawn between buildings, making 'Quad' seem especially aspirational:



Somehow, both the aspirational Quadrangle, the fact it needed a sign to signal its existence and the need to request respect for it with no ball games seemed very UNSW.

Just as crazy in a totally different way is Sydney University, which rejoices in providing over-complicated systems, cryptic instructions and vague guidelines. Like this:



I'm waiting. Now what?

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

"The most determined move for change ever in the history of higher education in Australia". Karmel on Dawkins

By 1987 when John Dawkins was made Minister for Education and Other Things, Peter Karmel, (who died in December last year) was like the godfather of higher education - in a good way.


Having been involved in higher education and educational policy since before the Murray Report, Karmel had longstanding expertise and experience as head of the government bodies responsible for higher education, as former chair of OECD committees on higher education and, in the 1980s, Vice-Chancellor at ANU.


Marginson and Considine describe the scandal of Dawkins' failure to include Karmel in his Purple Circle of advisors as evidence of Dawkins' autocratic approach to higher education policy.


In 1989, after Karmel had retired, he wrote a paper for the Australian Vice Chancellors' Committee entitled "Reflections on a Revolution". Considering how he could have felt about the Dawkins 'reforms', the paper is strikingly balanced, giving statistics and evidence for his statements, drawing on a rich understanding of the system's complex history:
"Notwithstanding perceptions to the contrary held by Ministers, government officials, businessmen and the press, the record of higher education over the past 50 years has been one of growth and diversification in response to external forces.

No institution, business or government department is perfect in its internal management and higher education has its share of imperfections, but the popular view that higher education has let Australia down is simply wrong." (p.7)

I will return with more on Peter Karmel and his response to Dawkins before too long.