Monday, 10 March 2014

Universities that are "just not good enough"?

I read this article by James Allan in Quadrant this week, which on the surface looks like it has some useful things to say about universities. Some of it is indeed quite great, but a lot really is not. This is a slightly edited copy of a rant I had about it on Facebook, when colleagues asked what I thought about it.

Firstly, the stuff about ARC is spot on - at least outside of science. People need grants because they need grants, not because theyneed money. It is stupid and wasteful. I am including this in Knowing Australia as part of a larger argument about connections between an academic 'economy of esteem' and money. It is complex and important. But also stupid.

Next, Allan makes an argument that students should move around more because it would make universities compete for the top students. This part of the text made me very angry, as my rant below will tell:
As far as competition for the top students. Well, honestly, I don't see what this has to do with quality anyway, not unless you care deeply about league tables based on student HSC marks (and if you do, you need your head checked). Since student HSC marks actually correlate to nothing except your SES status and the SES status of the school you go to and have no correlation at all to performance at uni (after first year) I don't care one jot for attracting the students with the highest marks out of high school. The additional suggestion that increased competition for the top students makes universities teach better is plainly wrong. As for what it takes for MOST people in the country to send their kids to the city…well there is a reason why participation by rural students is so low. Throwing around $12,000 a year like it is nothing shows JUST HOW ELITIST F*ING LAW SCHOOLS ARE and that the only students the author can imagine have parents where an extra thousand here or there is really no big deal. The number of things wrong with this…it makes me extremely angry. Parents' looks of incredulity are interpreted as cultural rather than financial? Seriously? "Some parents throw in a car". Sure. But many parents don't. Some have nothing. I've taught students working enormous hours at McDonalds because their parents can't really afford for them to be at uni at all. APPALLING analysis of the situation. "The demands on students are noticeably lower" - evidence, please? Is this just in law schools, everywhere? Or are you just declaring it to be so because - what? You're a lawyer that worked overseas. Pfft. This stuff really pisses me off.
I've blogged before about the cost of executive salaries, which is an issue Allen points to also.

On one level I agree. Yes of course we pay VCs too much. But I have to admit that every time I do the sums, the suffering that we could offset at the bottom end of the pay scales if we were to lower VC salaries ends up being very little at all. I'd like to look wider: VCs, DVCs, Deans, Associate Deans, Pro-Deans. In-house lawyers. I want to know the extent of performance bonuses across the sector at the levels under the top execs. I want to know how much "star" professors are being paid. I want a list of professors and star researchers given top-ups to the standard university salary and a justification for the expense. I want a list of professors that travel business class. Add THOSE things up and reduce them all and I reckon we could start by giving every PhD student a desk and every casual academic at least a small grant to help them survive the summer and get some of their research done - those are the places the really innovative research is being done anyway.

Much of the article was just petty whining, though. Yes we've carried the rules about assessment too far, bureaucracy is ridiculous, as for the needing-a-PhD rule - well, it was inevitable and is hardly the most terrible thing happening in universities today. Drawing on the idea of 'federalism' is just an appeal to Quadrant readers I think, with their love of small government...but in fact that has ABOLUTELY NOTHING to do the very good historical reasons for collegial governance.

Then Allan makes some suggestions. Here is my response to them (they are numbered down the bottom of his article).

1: The system already does this (record ratios of academics to administrators), we actually KNOW that ratio, though not with enough detail form to do the sums I want to do. Of course it also makes a whole lot of assumptions about administrators that are just untrue in the contemporary university. It is not actually easy as an academic to know that though, so it is understandable. I have spent a good deal of the past six months looking into this and it is far more difficult and complex than it sounds. But also, undoubtedly in my mind, a problem. Publishing ratios won't help a jot, however.

2. I would make them publish the salaries of EVERYONE, forget the top 20 execs (which is Allen's suggestion). My salary can be seen just by looking up the EBA…they should all be like that. Performance bonuses and top-up salaries are the sector's dirty secret. I look at this in Knowing Australia too.

3. The ARC is tough (Allan wants to close the thing down). I have long been very critical of the culture it has created and the values it forced, but I also know that we are very lucky in other ways to have it. We should stop wasting ARC money on unnecessary grants in areas that only applying for so much money because to progress in one's career you have to. Law would be one. History might be another... In fact wehat we need in the humanities and social sciences (like law and history) is SMALLER, MORE AVAILABLE ARC GRANTS, higher success rates so fewer people are wasting their time... But we can't close it down. In areas (unlike law) that actually need good quantities of research money, Australia's competitiveness in the global economy is at stake. I hope to heavens Quadrant readers have enough self-interest to see that, at least.

4. Sure, decentralised decision making. Though not as an end in itself. But yes, I too would like to see some collegiality. But not the type we had before - the corrupt boys club that excluded everyone but white male middle class professors or the corrupt collegiality that in colleges forces students to drink shampoo mixed with windex or that sees women raped in rituals that keep affirming who is IN the collegiate and who isn't. If we properly acknowledged the up AND downsides of collegiality, we might see the task that is ahead of a bit better. That being said, our universities are now HUGE. The old structures of collegial decision making would be very difficult indeed. Especially since they need to grow more, we need to teach more students and we still need to be able to do it cheaper because we already have just about half our population in education and not in the labour market..

Overall my assessment is this: yes, the universities are in trouble. This author has not really identified the problem and his solutions (to be brutally frank) are naive and unachievable. Universities HAD to change from the old elite, narrow things that they were and need to change still further. In the bumbling through though, all sorts of things went wrong. Instead of covering up the problems, universities need to expose them to the light and work - with government - to fix them. Academics need to figure out how to teach more students from a wider diversity of backgrounds. Endless comparisons to Harvard or Oxford are just stupid. Beyond stupid, actually, utterly worthless. And Law is not the same as all disciplines. If the ARC stopped funding some areas, our agricultural and mining industries (which prop up the whole economy) would stop being competitive internationally; our food would not be safe; and we'd have no idea how to tackle climate change. And for goodness sake: you want to be a researcher in a university, get a PhD and get over it. 

1 comment:

M-H said...

I think I completely agree with every word of this. And I don't say that often.