Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Staff-student ratios: whose doubts?

The headline in this week's Australian Higher Education Supplement reads 'Doubts Raised over staff-student ratios'.


The story refers to the recent release by DEEWR of equity statistics in higher education in 2010. Skipping over the bit where the department was apparently late (is mid-Feb late for 2010 data?), the HES is more than a little vague about the 'doubts' about staff-student ratios.
Firstly, they hint that the data itself is doubtful, by highlighting the Minister's recent castigation of the 'quality and timeliness' of DEEWR data.

Then they quote a couple of professors to cast doubt on staff-student ratios. Richard James from Melbourne, a Professor of Higher Education, apparently told the HES that 'staff-student ratios were notoriously misleading'. Was he talking about this data? The HES says that the reasons for their notoriety (according to the useful Professor James, they say) is that sessional staff are not included in the data. But they are.

Marcia Devlin, chair of higher education research at Deakin (who also keeps a great blog, by the way), the HES claims, suggests that staff-student ratios are not the beat measure of good teaching.


The purpose of all this appears, on the surface, to be a jibe at DEEWR for their data. But it also seems intended to undermine the value of staff-student ratios in the first place.


Staff-student ratios seem to be an old-fashioned measure. The higher education sector seems to generally prefer to use softer methods of evaluating good teaching - and then convert them into numbers - than using hard facts that cost hard money. Nevertheless, every student knows that the more teachers you have, the better your learning experience is likely to be.

But for universities and governments, staff-student ratios highlight the uncomfortable fact that quality and financial input are actually related.

For The Australian, I would suspect that in giving academic staff hard and comparative data to take to their institutions, staff-student ratios seem a bit too Bolshie.


But lets get the facts. The DEEWR data does include casual teaching: so when one university has a ratio of one-to-47.62, there are no sessional teachers hiding to provide additional expertise. What it doesn't easily tell is the proportion of research to teaching - but even if your teachers are doing a lot of research, that may well be a good thing for students.


Students benefit not only from the connection between research and teaching and regular contact with researchers, but also from the reputation of their institution. Being able to say you studied at the place where Professor X discovered (insert famous discovery) enhances the value of your degree. This might seem spurious, but we all know (and Simon Marginson has told us) that the economic value of the degree is not only in what you have learned: it is also a 'positional good', something that symbolises your value relative to others.


In an era where governments and institutions insist that 'quality' and 'excellence' be converted to numbers, staff-student ratios are exactly the numbers that potential students, selecting their preferred institution, should use. The government should too, but they might not like the funding implications. Higher education researchers could usefully analyse the relationship between student performance (not just satisfaction) and staff-student ratios.


So, lets give the data The Australian didn't.


The top ten performers on staff-student ratio in 2010 were:


Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education
Melbourne College of Divinity
Bond University 
The University of New South Wales
University of Tasmania
The University of Sydney
The Flinders University of South Australia
Monash University
The Australian National University
The University of Melbourne

The range is wide: 5.62-18.39. The top two are special institutions that perhaps have particular reasons for a lot of staff compared to their students. Bond university has a ratio of one-to 15.8, so the 'real' range for top performers is 15.8-18.39. Good on them. We might note that they include our wealthiest universities.

Lets take a look at the bottom ten. From best to worst:

Deakin University
Victoria University
University of Canberra
University of Ballarat
Southern Cross University
Edith Cowan University
Charles Sturt University
Macquarie University
University of Western Sydney
Central Queensland University

There are some good universities in there. Their staff must be working very hard. CQU is at one-to-47.62, but the rest range between 23.67 and 29.23. Perhaps there was something wrong with the CQU data. Or a lot of people are doing a lot of self-directed learning in central Queensland.

The middle section of the data is more numerous and more clustered than both ends, ranging from one-to-18.5 to one-to-22.68.

If it were up to me, this would be the measure that universities would start with when they advertise, when they showcase their quality and make claims for the resources they offer to potential students. It would also be the one that governments would use to evaluate whether the sector is sufficiently funded. It is not the only one of course: a lot of bad teachers don't trump a smaller number of good ones. But chances of finding a good one might be better when there are more.

It represents a simple, measurable and useful question: are there enough teachers?

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Anything new is probably untrue

It has been a while since I've posted an Ashby quote.
Education has for so long occupied the minds and driven the pens of thinkers that anything new on the matter would probably be untrue.
- Eric Ashby, 1941.

It seems relevant now (though I hope there is something new in my work).

Monday, 6 February 2012

Acknowledgements, the long version

As I try to finish this thing, I think more and more of the people I should acknowledge. Not wanting to be too self-indulgent, I restricted my official acknowledgements in the thesis to one page, double spaced. Of course there are more. I will still miss people, for various reasons, but here goes for the long version.

Most of all (this is at the end of the official version, here at the start) I am grateful to my partner Thomas and my son Cooper. Their roles were the most difficult and their support the most important. To say that both were wonderful is a serious understatement. They went without the elegances of life while I left us poorer. They provided emotional, financial and domestic support on a too-regular basis. They understood this to be important. Thomas listened patiently to accounts of ideas, archives and conferences. Cooper dealt with countless school holidays, bored while I worked. They are both brilliant and much-loved.

Sincere thanks are owed to my supervisor, Stephen Garton, whose insightful, disciplined and generous guidance kept me from becoming too absorbed in details, distracted by tangents or impatient with tasks. In fact, I do not believe anyone else could have helped me do this particular project: I was fortunate indeed to have his help. More, despite other significant pressures, he was always available to me. I owe him a truly enormous debt.

As associate supervisor, Geoffrey Sherington not only shared his encyclopaedic knowledge of educational history but also kindly gallanted me to conferences and dinners, offering warm, supportive comments at every step. I am so grateful that he made himself so much more available than an associate supervisor normally should be required to do. I could not have done this project without his help.

The Sydney History Department provided a vibrant and nurturing – and yet intellectually exacting – research environment, for which I am grateful. In particular, Julia Horne regularly came to my presentations, discussed my project and offered friendly advice. Richard White did similarly, but also met me for a beer whenever a friendly chat would help me out. Alison Bashford, Penny Russell, Frances Clarke, Andrew Fitzmaurice and plenty of others offered thoughts and advice on papers, conferences, ideas, approaches and strategies. Mike McDonnell helped me in a thousand different ways, but particularly in cheering me on when things were at their worst.

My postgraduate colleagues have been a godsend: Emma Dortins, Sophie Loy-Wilson, Dave Earl, Matt Allen and so many others.

The Sydney Education Faculty has also provided important support, not only in my associate supervisor, but in other colleagues: Craig Campbell, Helen Proctor and my former colleagues at CoCo have helped in many different ways.

At conferences and in coffee shops, scholars from a variety of disciplines gave advice and commented on my ideas. I should thank Blake Stephens, Rohan Cahill, Mary-Helen Ward, Dick Selleck, Kim McShane, Iain Mason, Rebecca Sheehan, Tamson Pietsch, Yoni Ryan, Zora Simic, Phoebe Palmieri, Anna Clark, Kate Bower and so many, many more: their insights at all sorts of stages of my project helped to shape it.

Several people reviewed drafts and gave advice. In particular, thanks are owed to Lewis d’Avigdor, Peter Hobbins and Terry Irving for reviewing sections relevant to their work. David Rolph read drafts of the chapter on intellectual property twice, giving crucial advice to this very grateful non-lawyer.  John Hirst and members of the writing group he hosted were very useful: thanks to Judith Bonzol, Greg Murrie, Emma Dortins, Penny Nash and others for their critiques and suggestions.

Mary Jane Mahony deserves particular acknowledgement, for she read and provided detailed comments on the entire second draft. She also acted as proofreader for a chapter, along with Amanda Kaladelfos, Dave Earl, Nicole Davis, Ruth Laxton and Judith Bonzol.

The project would have been impossible for me to complete without the financial support provided by the ARC, the University of Sydney Postgraduate Research Support Scheme, History Department grants-in-aid, ANZHES bursaries, a CSAA bursary and an AHA/CAL bursary. I have been very fortunate in my employers throughout and thank Ann Applebee, Yoni Ryan, Alison Bashford, Andrew Fitzmaurice and Mike McDonnell.

Of the many archivists to whom I am indebted, Julia Mant at the University of Sydney archives has provided the most support. Thanks also to staff at the National Archives of Australia and the Australian National Library. I am grateful to university archivists at the ANU, CSU, RMIT, UNE and UNSW as well as the Universities of Adelaide, Melbourne, Monash, Macquarie and Wollongong. Thanks too, to the NTEU for granting permission to access the FAUSA archives and to Don Aitkin, David Penington and Robert H.T. Smith for interviews.

In addition to my immediate family, thanks also to my extended family, colleagues and friends who were understanding and helped me in so many different ways. I have leaned on them heavily and appreciate their support.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

The god-professor lives

It is a long time since I felt compelled to photograph something on a university campus: probably because I've been spending all my time writing about them and visiting few but my own.

This photo is from inside the building in which I work. In this building it is possible to believe that the university and the work done within it really has not changed in a very long time. And in this image, it seems the god-professor is also firmly intact:




You could order the photographs of the members of staff of this department in all sorts of different ways: a row of three and one of two, for instance. Or you could do this.