WINNER OF THE AUSTRALIAN COUNCIL OF DEANS OF EDUCATION AWARD
WHEN Charles Dickens published Nicholas Nickleby, the novel featuring sadistic boarding school principal Wackford Squeers, outraged Yorkshire schoolmasters threatened to sue him for defamation. Each protested that he must be the man on whom Dickens had based Squeers – confirming how close to the truth Dickens was about the less savory habits of the British boarding schools of the day.
Earlier this year, Victoria’s academics confirmed something about their institutions when The Age’s education section ran satiric articles about a mythical ‘Oz Learn University’. At competitive, market-oriented Oz Learn, academics ran garage sales and cake stalls to raise funds; signed product endorsement agreements with companies in the areas of their research; billed students for five-minute consultations; and based pass rates not on merit, but on how many fee-paying students were needed to balance the departmental budget. Disciplines that failed to return a profit were put into the hands of receivers.
Oz Learn Uni was eventually “right-sized” into an on-line operation that did not even need a campus, so its site was turned into an educational theme park for tourists. Its vice-chancellor decided “they could sell university memorabilia and academic dress and make use of the Great Hall as a photo opportunity for tourists, wearing gowns and holding parchments they could buy at adjoining stalls. Perhaps he was sentimental, but it preserved ‘the idea of the university’ – a phrase he’d heard somewhere”.
The real university, in other words, was history.
Academics from all over Victoria rang The Age and one another, convinced that the author, known only by a pen-name, must be describing their campus. In fact the author was from interstate (retired Adelaide academic Kay Rollison), but her stories resonated because the kind of changes she mocked are being experienced nationwide.
According to the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, our “public” university system now receives less than half of its funding from government; private schools get a greater proportion of their income from government than public universities do. Institutions have been forced to cut costs (Exit, stage left, teachers, subjects and small tutorials) and to compete like businesses for enrolments and private funding (Enter, stage right, the fee-paying local or international student, on-line courses and the corporate sugar daddy).
Why should the rest of us care about these storms in an ivory tower? Because the nation’s intellectual and economic health is directly linked to the state of its universities. What happens in our universities today has a profound effect on the Australia of tomorrow.
And many are now arguing that our universities’ need to turn a quick buck is undermining Australia’s fledgling attempts to develop into a post-industrial “knowledge economy” in which information and innovation, rather than old-style manufacturing, is predicted to be the big job-spinner.
Like Superman, universities have traditionally been devoted to “the pursuit of truth”. They do this through their twin roles of teaching and research. But the integrity of both activities has suffered as a side-effect of the changes designed to make universities more efficient and more self-sufficient.
Teaching standards have been dumbed down; basic science and humanities subjects are languishing; newer universities are struggling to compete; and commercial interests are skewing research and strangling publication of research findings.
It’s a far cry from “the idea of a university” canvassed by 19th century Oxford don John Henry Newman. Newman saw the aim of education as producing cultured people rather than providing them with a professional qualification.
Researchers Simon Marginson and Mark Considine recently co-authored The Enterprise University, a study of 17 Australian campuses struggling to reinvent themselves following the retreat of government from tertiary funding. They found a system in crisis.
Marginson says, “I think universities are losing their sense of mission and identity, quite fundamentally. There’s a tendency to think that playing the (funding) game right is what’s important now, rather than producing good and useful things.
“Only 38 per cent of staff are now performing in academic capacities; it used to be about 50 per cent but the others are all now organising the university in one way or another. Universities now have to market courses and raise funds from alumni and conduct a corporate-style relationship with the world.”
He warns that if universities do not return to valuing their core work – teaching and research – their loss of identity will contribute to a weakening of the national identity, which itself is an important “commodity”: “It’s what Australia brings to
a globalised marketpace; it’s what will attract the rest of the world to you. To put it crudely, you (need) a cultural brand.”
They concluded that corporate style of management under which universities now labor is, in any case, unnecessary: “You don’t have to be a business in order to serve business,” Marginson says.
The shotgun marriage of traditional scholarly aims with snappy corporate values has certainly made for uneasy bedfellows. One academic describes the language of corporate plans and troop-rallying slogans as “reminiscent of Japanese car workers singing company songs at best, or the Chinese proletariat with Mao’s red book at worst .. .”
Paul Rodan, an educational consultant and honorary research associate in political and social inquiry at Monash, says of sloganeering, “Given that much of the academic profession is about precision of language and avoidance of grandiose unsubstantiated statements, expecting them to embrace such drivel is like expecting to find John Howard at a nude beach.”
Academics have been even more alienated by expectations that they themselves should play spin-doctor to protect their “product’s” image. An academic who did not wish to be named said of a major Melbourne university, “I’ve been at open days where I’ve had to lie to people about what the facilities are like. ‘We read last week that your university has had funding cuts. Has that affected your faculty?’ ‘Oh no, our facilities and services and teaching are better than ever.’ It’s a lie.
“If I were to take you to some of our science laboratories you would think they were from some flashback movie of the 1960s. If the labs have been run down, and staff-student ratios used to be 10 to 1 and now they’re 15 to 1, it’s very difficult to argue that you’re offering the same quality as you were five or ten years ago. But of course no one will admit on any public record or glossy handout that funding cuts have had any effect because it undermines the ‘competitiveness’ of the ‘product’ in the ‘market’.”
AN ACADEMIC from another large Melbourne campus says: “There’s definitely a strong element of dishonesty in (university managements’) own rhetoric. Right through the system, when people talk about `quality’ they seem to mean `PR’. There’s no thought and no serious funding put into it.”
He says his university advertised a viticulture course for a regional campus. “The (campus) had no one qualified to teach it but were told the course had to go ahead because it had been trumpetted as a pioneering initiative.
“Then they were told that if they really couldn’t do it, they should get their students to do it electronically and access the course on another campus – but it turned out they didn’t have the computers for the students to do this. Most of the students ended up dropping out.”
But it is hard to imagine how universities would have managed if they had not aggressively sought other ways to earn money, with government funding falling from 80 to 90 per cent of their income in 1980 to less than 50 per cent today.
In 1996, the Howard government announced higher-education cuts of $800 million over three years. According to Julie Wells, coordinator of policy and research at the National Tertiary Education Union, in the 25 years since the Commonwealth took over responsibility for university funding, spending has averaged 1.15 per cent of GDP. If that average had been maintained, she says, there would be at least another $2 billion in the system today.
Universities are now doing more with less. Between 1996 and 1999, staff numbers were cut by 2056 (down 2.5 per cent) but student numbers rose by 52,834 (up 10.8 per cent). Most of this growth has been in fee-paying and marginally funded places, says Wells. “There are now 5000 fewer fully subsidised student places than there were in 1996.”
“The response from the Minister is, `But look, you’re getting more income than ever’,” says Stuart Hamilton, executive director of the vice-chancellor’s committee (AVCC). “That’s true, but it’s because we’re teaching more students. It’s not money for jam.”
Some good things have resulted from universities’ forced embrace of industry projects and fee-paying students. Australia is educating more people to tertiary level than ever before (686,200 in 1999, compared to 441,000 in 1989). Our 37 universities have forged new connections with industry and become more focused on what students need to equip them for a tough employment market; Melbourne University now offers its arts students a unit in “Managing work and projects”.
Tertiary education has become the nation’s second biggest export earner, bringing in $3.1 billion a year – from the sheep’s back to the academic’s back.
In the market, the customer is always right, and products must be adapted accordingly. In education, though, meeting customer demand can sometimes destroy the value of the commodity on sale. “I have had six academics from three different universities tell me they have allowed class standards lower than in the past; lower than they would lay down in good conscience,” says Alan Roberts, a former physicist and vice-president of the Association for the Public University. “A lot more do it but won’t admit it even to themselves.
“It’s a big temptation: Are academics going to hold to the standards of the past, in which people should be made to show they have the ability to go on to the next year, even though by doing so they risk the loss of students, the loss of staff and even redundancies that might include them? Students are only human; they naturally have a bias towards courses where the chance of passing or getting a credit is higher.”
A humanities academic, who recently resigned from one of Melbourne’s newer universities, reports blunt threats from his administration. “I have had people say to me, `If you don’t pass this thesis, your colleague is going to lose her job’. It came to a head in one particular case, but there was an ongoing, broader problem where I had been refusing to accept theses that weren’t of an acceptable standard and I was hauled over the coals for it.
“With post-graduate overseas students, pressure was placed on the department to accept them (into courses) regardless of their standard of English.”
Professor Stuart Macintyre, dean of arts at Melbourne University, acknowledges there is strain. “Standards are under pressure. That’s certainly true. There’s a subtle but insistent pressure to take people; I’m not saying people ignore the English language tests, but there is pressure to get (fee-paying international students) in.”
Several institutions, including Monash University and RMIT, have reorganised their grading system so that credits, distinctions and high distinctions can be achieved with lower scores than previously. At Monash, for example, 80 per cent is now enough for a high distinction, which previously required a score of 85 per cent.
“In response to market forces, universities are offering students shorter, quicker routes to post-graduate degrees,” says an academic, who did not wish to be named because he did not want to be seen as disparaging his university. “Take `executive MBAs’: MBAs used to require 16 credit points, two years of full-time study, but `executive MBAs’ only require 14 credit points.”
In research, funding changes are skewing activity. Tight government performance indicators award funding according to the number of papers academics publish in journals and the number of post-graduate students who finish a PhD. But the indicators value quantity over quality.
PAUL JAMES, president of the Association for the Public University and a lecturer in politics at Monash, warns that, “scientists are publishing masses of material but are being read less. We know they are publishing more because the statistics say they are, but they’re being cited less internationally because the citation indexes list fewer citations of Australia”.
Professor Brian Anderson, president of the Academy of Science, confirms this. “In respect of computer science, earlier figures showed that we used to be cited 16 per cent less than the world norm; more recent figures show we were being cited 28 per cent less than the world norm.”
There are other ways in which quantity is rewarded over quality, he says: “If you’ve got a doctoral student enrolled who’s doing badly, it’s not in the university’s interests to eject them with the present formula … And if university A produces two PhDs who get jobs at Cambridge and MIT and then come back from overseas, while university B produces four students who can only get jobs as taxi drivers, it’s university B who gets twice as much money.”
And from Julian Teicher, lecturer in the department of management at Monash: “If you write a book, that attracts very little of value for the university, even though it might take years, and is a significant form of endeavor. A book might count for, say, two points, which might be $3000. A journal article might count for the same, so which would you do?”
Melbourne’s Macintyre says the commercialisation of university research is also skewing the form of knowledge pursued, with little money available for basic or “curiosity” research because it offers less prospect of short-term profit.
“There are increasing industry links where (businesses) are either commissioning research or engaging (academics) as consultants or sponsoring research projects, where the activities of the academics are largely shaped by those opportunities. There’s also an `opportunity cost’: while you do research in these areas that you’re asked to examine, you will not be doing it in another area.”
“Basic” research sounds nerdish to the layman, but many discoveries have resulted from scientists being allowed to follow hunches or from unanticipated spin-offs. “It’s corny to talk about accidental serendipitous research but that’s the reality,” Rodan says. He cites a personal example: “I’ve got an artificial tooth with a titanium base – accidental discovery, I’m told, made when titanium was put in an animal for an experiment that had nothing to do with artificial hips or teeth.”
Anderson offers the Internet as an example of an industrially relevant development that no one foresaw when the computer first arrived.”Thomas Watson, the chairman of IBM, originally thought the computer was a scientific curiosity with a world market of four or five buyers … It’s hard to foresee the benefits that will flow from a piece of basic research.”
Some valuable areas of research are likely to be the poor relations of private funding: why would commercial companies be attracted to studies of sustainable agriculture or biological pest controls? How could they justify sponsoring expensive research into cures for Third World illnesses when Third World people cannot afford to pay Western prices for medicines?
Finally, the shift towards sponsored research undermines the notion of a worldwide community of scholars contributing to a general pool of knowledge. Macintyre says those commissioning research, such as industry or government, now often prevent publication of findings thought to be commercially or politically sensitive: “There’s an increasing number of theses embargoed in given fields because of commercialisation.”
In America, cash-strapped universities are pursuing intellectual property so fiercely that one academic wound up on the chain gang of a maximum security prison after colliding with his university over the rights to a discovery he made as an undergraduate.
Atlantic Monthly magazine reported that Petr Taborsky claimed he received permission from his dean at the University of South Florida to begin work on his own experiments at the end of a period of research sponsored by a private company. When he made a breakthrough, both the college and the company laid claim to it, and the university filed criminal charges against him for stealing university property. The state governor was embarrassed by the public debacle and later offered clemency, but Taborsky refused it on principle.
Lack of corporate sponsorship produces another set of problems: death or prolonged decline have been the fate of many basic sciences and humanities subjects over the past 15 years. Typically, philosophy, classics, languages, history, maths and physics have suffered, while vocationally oriented courses such as business, tourism and hospitality have boomed, according to Professor Malcolm Gillies, president of the Academy of Humanities.
“We don’t get a lot of corporate sponsorship in the philosophy department,” says Melbourne University lecturer Brian Scarlett drily. Even more drily: “When I was head of the department I suggested that we might negotiate to have the chair changed to the Carlton and United Breweries chair of philosophy, but (the then professor) took a dim view of it.”
At LaTrobe University, philosopher Robert Young says his department lost 40 per cent of its staff in five-and-a-half years. “(Management) would say they are caught in a situation where resources are being squeezed, so if they get the windfall gain of someone departing, they can either apply that to part of the university seen to be productive or they can reduce the costs
in an area now seen as too costly in terms of the students it can attract.”
Rodan believes that such changes mean “the universities as places of critical thought are vulnerable, because those areas that specialise in developing critical thought are the very ones that have been cut”.
Student choice means students are deciding too much of the content of courses, which are getting narrower, he says. The result when the “customer” only wants to do computing: “There are reports from (employers) in the IT area whingeing that these students have good technical skills but are incapable of analysis or communication.”
While Australia’s universities today accept that equipping students for the workforce must be a major goal, Gillies points out that students do not have to make an “either/or” choice between roundedness and vocational pragmatism: many now do combined degrees, such as arts with law, economics or engineering.
Perhaps the most serious problem is the possibility that some of the newer, poorer universities might not survive. Considine and Marginson found that power has been centralised in today’s universities; academic boards and other bodies that formerly had a lot of say in university governance had been brushed aside by managers who saw them as obstructionist.
Considine warns: “The university as an institution is now almost standing on one leg, and that leg is the effectiveness of the vice-chancellor and a small structure linked to sub-committees and council and perhaps one or two other people. That is an enormously risky and fragile way to plot the future of a complex organisation … It won’t be too long before we see some real disasters.”
Given the growing gap between rich and poor universities, this might include financial collapses, says Marginson. “It’s possible to see a medium-sized university outside the top 10 or so which has not got strong sources of non-government income – which is crucial now for your core funding – getting into a series of medium-sized deficits over a period of three or four years and (not being able to) work its way out of it under its own steam.”
BUT, after years of acceptance of change, there are signs of resistance. Melbourne’s philosophy department is to get three new staff because the new arts dean, Macintyre, is determined to protect the humanities.
In her inaugural address in October, Victoria’s newest vice-chancellor, Professor Ruth Dunkin, said the education sector had been forced to adopt the tools of corporate management regardless of their fitness. She argued that knowledge workers need to be managed differently from industrial workers in order to foster creativity and risk-taking.
And business-oriented experts are now warning that the top-down management style of the corporate model has had its day in both the private and the public sector. Alan Burton-Jones is an IT and management consultant and author of the book Knowledge Capitalism. Burton-Jones says that a post-industrial economy, in which managers must help staff produce ideas rather than widgets, requires a ditching of traditional management styles in favor of – wait for it – university-style collegiality.
“Knowledge management in industry is moving much more towards creativity and innovation,” he says. “The model that best suits that is the collegiality model, which is why Microsoft refers to the `Microsoft campus’. It’s moving away from the boss as manager, and towards the boss as coach; it’s high on creativity rather than efficiency of process. If universities are (emulating) management in the old sense, they are copying an industrial notion of management which is now being replaced.”
“The idea of a university” is open for discussion – again.
First published in The Age.