Remember Norman Lindsay’s book about The magic pudding?

The pudding is a magic one which, no matter how much you eat it, always reforms into a whole pudding again.

Well, according to this story in the Australian the Tertiary Education Minister, Senator Evans, seems to think that the story describes our university sector. No matter how much gets eaten up by government plans to expand undergraduate enrollments, apparently our universities can just ‘reform’ to maintain excellence. In case you get hit by the pay-wall, here is an extract:

Evans is concerned about large student:staff ratios …. He was concerned that tutorial size had increased in some cases to 25-30 students compared with the 7-8 he remembered at university. … “I dont pretend to have the solutions to it,” Senator Evans told the conference. He said that his first response would be: “I am paying you all this extra money, you ought to be able to fix it, …

As I have noted before, Australian undergraduate education has moved from focusing on a relatively small proportion of the population, into a system that already educates one-quarter of young Australians. And the government wants to raise this to 40%. But our institutions have not changed and our universities try to combine research and research training with mass undergraduate education. Indeed, as an earlier commenter pointed out, the Dawkins reforms of the late 1980s probably exacerbated this by turning all undergraduate training institutions into research universities.

It can’t be done. No amount of fiddling at the edges will allow our current system to produce both high quality research and mass undergraduate education over 39 universities, particularly as Senator Evans immediately rules out any change that would help address the cross subsidies in the current system:

Senator Evans reiterated there were no plans to deregulate student fees or increase the student contribution.

So foreign student revenues will continue to underpin university funding.

What is a solution? My suggestion is a ‘vertical separation’. Most existing universities would focus on undergraduate teaching (perhaps along the lines of teaching focused US universities). Undergraduate educators would not be expected to be researchers – unlike at present. They would be expected to be excellent educators. Research would occur in a small number of separate institutions that would also provide Masters and PhD training.

Would this undermine ‘research training’ at the undergraduate level? Not compared with the alternative of mass education in the existing system. Only a small percent of our undergraduates will go on to research careers. For most undergraduates, university education is about learning generic skills (e.g. critical thinking) and specific knowledge. The change would help our universities to offer top quality education to large numbers of young Australians with research training at the graduate level.

Would this mean less academics employed by the government in research? Yes. Currently almost all university academics are meant to be researchers. But there cannot be 39 institutions in Australia staffed with world class researchers. Many universities have pockets of research excellence but few have excellence in all areas. By having fewer, concentrated research institutions we can get better value for our research dollars.

Would the research institutes be separated from the universities? I think separation probably works better. But the best model for this system in Australia (as an earlier commenter pointed out) was the Institute of Advanced Studies at ANU. That research institute produced world class research but was connected with ‘the faculties’. Unfortunately, over time it has had its funding whittled away and parts have been merged back into the broader university – to ANU’s and Australia’s detriment.

The reform would make research funding transparent. Is that a good idea? I think so. If Australia had a small number of elite research institutions contributing to both basic knowledge and Australia’s cultural, medical, environmental and economic progress, then I suspect that the population would see it as money well spent. The current hidden cross-subsidies make research the poor cousin, depending on the largesse of undergraduate education. It creates schizophrenia in Australian higher education – where research is the measure of ‘worth’ but teaching is the source of funding.

There is no magic pudding for Australia’s universities. Without major reform our universities risk being trapped in a downward spiral that harms both undergraduate education quality and research quality. Simply saying ‘take some money and fix things’, quite frankly, is not good enough Minister. Let’s use some of our research excellence to work out a better way.

 

23 Responses to The ‘magic pudding’ universities.

  1. rabee says:

    The Institute of Advanced Studies is bad example. For some time the teaching branch (of economics) at the ANU was doing far more and better research than the research only branch.

    The teaching/research/academic tenure model is perhaps the only model that we know works for the purpose of providing high quality education and research. 

    The reform that we need in Australia is one that strengthens academic tenure and ensures that the best researchers are at the coal face teaching undergraduates. 

    Essentially, if you want resources, then you need to teach. If you want access to students you will need to be a good researcher. And once we give you tenure you then have the academic freedom to do whatever research you want and at any pace you see fit.

    The  last part is missing in Australia, and I think that that’s where the reform priority ought to be. A good first step in that direction would perhaps be for Michael Spence of the Sydney to step back into a a normal professorial position. 
     

  2. David Stern says:

    Yes the IAS has been fully merged with the faculties – well it really is an ongoing process but that was the intention – in order to get all researchers to also do some teaching. In the long-run the ARC would be funding pure researchers on a competitive basis for periods of time rather than having people effectively tenured with no teaching obligation. I actually think the ARC model here which focuses heavily on fellowships is a good idea (compared to US NSF which focuses on projects many on a top down tender basis). But I hear that the Future Fellows project probably won’t be renewed. Apart from that some specialization across the sector in the way Stephen previously suggested makes sense so that some universities focus mostly on teaching and others mostly on research but not a total separation that he is now proposing. We already have this in practice and the move to “compacts” – or were those scrapped was supposed to formalize it, I guess.

  3. Stephen King says:

    Rabee – the IAS is a great example except in economics! The rest of the IAS kicked research goals for a long time (the sciences, philosophy, etc). Why the problem in economics? Not sure – it is before my time there. But perhaps it was tenure!
    More importantly, your proposal that “the best researchers are at the coal face teaching undergraduates” is a proposal for small elite undergraduate programs – not the mass undergraduate education that we are rapidly moving to in Australia. 
    To see this, ask yourself these questions. How many ‘world class’ researchers are there in Australian Universities? And how many would we need to teach undergraduates on your proposal? 
    There are around 500,000 undergraduates in Australia (straight off the DEEWR website). They each take around 8 classes per year. And let’s say we average 100 students per class. That is 40000 classes per year. So if we have a teaching load of 4 courses per year then we need 10,000 world class researchers. (I will not ask you if your load is this high Rabee!)
    Or let’s work on a student-staff ratio. 20 would be a good number although 10 is world best practice. On that basis we need 25,000 world class researchers (50,000 if we wanted to reach world best practice undergraduate education).
    So unless you can find 10,000 world class researchers in Australia, your proposal is dead. And unless you can find 25,000 to 50,000 world class researchers in Australia, your proposal will doom our undergraduates to a mediocre education in crowded classrooms. 

  4. rabee says:

    Stephen,

    I guess we are debating the kind of specialisation we should be seeing in the sector. I don’t think that the kind of cross subsidisation that you are proposing is not sustainable. 
    I am very uncomfortable with the notion that we should move away from the teaching based funding model. 

    In a nutshell: How much should the government pay a university for educating  a student who is taught by an A* group of researchers?  How about for a degree in which the teachers are not world class researchers?

    I think that universities should be rewarded for excellence in research through the funding formula for teaching. So a top research group gets more money for educating an Australian student than other groups. 
      

  5. Andreas Ortmann says:

    Stephen, I don’t think your computations make a whole lotta sense. As it is, we have already within universities quite some differentiation and lots of casuals. In fact, more than half of the academic staff is according to NTEU data casual teaching staff (actually in excess of 60%) and I assume it is these people who lighten the teaching load of the more research active ones. (I am just stating the facts, not implicitly condoning this trend which has its own problems for sure.)

    As regards teaching of research active academic staff, I find little as rewarding as working with smart and motivated undergraduates and it cuts the other way round, too. Only if these smart and motivated undergraduates (surely those in honors classes but even before that) learn from active researchers will they truly understand how exciting science can be and consider academic careers. (I grant you there are exceptions to that, too, in both directions.) I know dozens of examples where collaborations with undergraduates have led to respectable publications (in at least one case a publication in Econometrica.) 

    As to funding, somewhere I read that 76% of ARC research funding goes to the G8; correct me if I am wrong. So your implicit argument about research funding being spread over 39 entities is way too undifferentiated and not helpful. I suspect that the 24% that go outside of the G8 probably ends up in pockets of research excellence that truly deserve it. You really want to change that?

    Money is part of the problem. Just look at Germany which has frozen university educational spending for the last 3 decades or so, with really bad consequences. As long as the government is not willing to increase its spending, increasing undergraduate education to 40 percent from 25 percent will have to be cross-subsidized through foreign students. No problem there if enrolments are not stabilized or increased by lower quality standards. Of course, the education market world-wide is increasingly more competitive and current profit margins are bound to decline, and hence the potential for cross-subsidization of education of domestic students and resarch.) Hence you will see probably even more attempts to substitute regular staff with casuals. I doubt that these are sustainable developments and the fact that we are where we are already prompts to my mind interesting questions about the way Australian universities are run. But that’s a topic for another post.

    Anyways, by and far I find myself for the most part in agreement with rabee on this one.

  6. Andreas Ortmann says:

    And further on this comment of yours, Stephen: 

    “What is a solution? My suggestion is a ‘vertical separation’. Most existing universities would focus on undergraduate teaching (perhaps along the lines of teaching focused US universities). Undergraduate educators would not be expected to be researchers – unlike at present. They would be expected to be excellent educators. Research would occur in a small number of separate institutions that would also provide Masters and PhD training. ”

    Some of that happens indeed in the USA (I have studied and taught there for two decades.) On the bottom of the pyramid you have community colleges and for-profit providers (mostly of vocational training but not only), then further up you have state universities, and then further up increasingly more entities with increasing shares of research. But its not vertical “separation”, and it is certainly not institutionalized/legislated separation and — while seeing clearly the problems with it — that, I think, is a good thing.  (Certainly compared to the alternatives I have seen.) Just look at the research and teaching connex at liberal arts colleges or many colleges or programs within universities that fulfill similar functions.  

    As far as I am concerned, the best system is one that lets the market work its magic but also provides the kind of institutional assurances for key stakeholders (e.g., academic staff but other staff, too) that they are not being rail-roaded. That, too, is a topic for another post though … 

  7. Stephen says:

    Hi Andreas
    Some quick responses.
    First, about 67% percent of academics are casuals. However, don’t make the mistake of thinking that the university as a whole looks like an economics department. Many of these casuals are research active – or trying to be. 
    Second, if you are happy for undergraduates to be taught by non-research-active staff, then you have already disagreed with Rabee. If two-thirds of the academics were non-research-active, and these made up more than two-thirds of teaching for undergraduates, then the world-class researchers are seeing undergraduates very little. So at best your argument says that undergraduates are not being taught by world-class researchers most of the time now, so why change the system? If that is true, let’s stop pretending that undergraduates are taught by world-class researchers.
    Third, having undergraduate educators as researchers just because some undergraduates and some researchers sometimes get a benefit, is an argument for the tail wagging the dog. The same argument could be made for upper level high school. Why don’t we require upper level high school students to be taught by research active teachers? Because it would be completely unworkable and lower education standards. 
    Fifth, on research funding, remember that the ARC only funds a small amount of research in Universities. The standard workload for all academics in Australia is around one-third teaching, one-third research and one-third administration (it changes with seniority). The government does not distinguish in student payments on the basis of whether the student is at a Go8 or not. So every full time academic at every university in Australia is receiving a salary that includes a component for research. This is a lot of research funding.
    My basic point is simple – in a mass-education undergraduate environment we cannot pretend that undergraduates are taught by world-class researchers (we simply do not have enough of them) and we cannot pretend that all academics in Australia are world-class researchers. So let’s change the system to reflect mass education, not a nineteenth century concept of undergraduate education. 

  8. DavidN says:

    Stephen,

    What qualifications do the teachers have under your model? Professors might always be good teachers (some of them may even terrible) but independent of teaching ability phds will inevitably have greater knowledge of their subject knowledge and that is (I think a beneficial) distinguishing factor from secondary/primary school education. I don’t think you need all tutors to be phds but having the lecturer know the subject area very well provides a benefit independent of teaching ability. Of course you can have phds just teach and do no research. I will be concerned if your model leads to a ‘dumbing down’ of qualifications.

  9. DavidN says:

    *not always

  10. Andreas Ortmann says:

    “The standard workload for all academics in Australia is around one-third teaching, one-third research and one-third administration (it changes with seniority). The government does not distinguish in student payments on the basis of whether the student is at a Go8 or not. So every full time academic at every university in Australia is receiving a salary that includes a component for research. This is a lot of research funding.” Good point that if true. (Can you point me to numbers?) In any case, it is not clear to me that there are not other ways to address that problem than the kind of forced re-structuring that you seem to advocate.
    “My basic point is simple – in a mass-education undergraduate environment we cannot pretend that undergraduates are taught by world-class researchers (we simply do not have enough of them) and we cannot pretend that all academics in Australia are world-class researchers.”
    Agreed on that.

    “So let’s change the system to reflect mass education, … .” 
    Agreed on that, too. My point is that that is already happening to quite some extent and that that process is probably better than the kind of forced re-structuring that you seem to advocate. Again, I think a key issue is that in this process of market-driven re-structuring (bottom-up rather than top-down) academic freedom is maintained and reasonable interests of key stake-holders (academic and others) are taken into account. Equity of processes is widely considered a pre-condition for the efficiency of organizations in the relevant literature. To my mind, correctly so.

  11. rabee says:

    Help! can someone approve my comments out of the moderation list. I’m not a troll promise.

  12. rabee says:

    rabee on Your comment is awaiting moderation. March 8th, 2012 9:07 pm

    Stephen,
    I guess we are debating the kind of specialisation we should be seeing in the sector. I don’t think that the kind of cross subsidisation that you are proposing is not sustainable. 
    I am very uncomfortable with the notion that we should move away from the teaching based funding model. 
    In a nutshell: How much should the government pay a university for educating  a student who is taught by an A* group of researchers?  How about for a degree in which the teachers are not world class researchers?
    I think that universities should be rewarded for excellence in research through the funding formula for teaching. So a top research group gets more money for educating an Australian student than other groups. 
      

  13. Stephen King says:

    Andreas
    It is a bit hard to find exact allocations of academic workload as Universities have mind numbingly complex workload models. But a quote from a 2012 document on the NTEU website called “Review of Victoria University’s academic workload model” by the Workplace Research Centre (Uni of Sydney) states:
    “Academic workloads are typically defined as 40% research, 40% teaching and 20% service to university”.
    So I was being a bit conservative on the funding for research via academic salaries.

    Rabee:
    Funding research through teaching has got us into this mess – it is not the way out. The government will not fund domestic students appropriately because it is cheaper to pressure universities to find alternative funding (e.g. international students). So even if domestic student numbers rise with current funding, that will just increase the pressures on universities to get more international students – or lower research.
    The VCs are pushing for undergraduate fee deregulation because it is the only solution they can see under the current structures. My solution – change the structures.
    Finally on moderation of your comments – with a UQ address WordPress obviously assumes you are a troll!

  14. hc says:

    Do we need 40% of our youth going to university? Does it improve our economic and social fabric?

    What about people who can fix cars or design plumbing systems that efficiently separate us from our excreta? I can’t do such things but really depend on people who can. 

    These non-university people often now earn more than academics. Do we not need more of them? 

  15. rosser says:

    separation is the way to go . think of the students .better teachers produce better graduates and surely that is the major concern. my experience was that the emphasis on research lessened teacher effectiveness. return anu to research and separate the undergraduate arm .ditto formost universitiesmay even lessen the first year failure rate which is a waste all roundeanssp progress

  16. John says:

    Stephen,
    I think you are missing the point: teaching and research are complementary at the undergrad and the grad level. I can’t think of an example where the best UG programs are taught by non-researchers. Not one example. And if we go to the other end of the argument, I can’t think of any substantive example where a zero-teaching institution has yielded better research.
    On this point, how about lets look at the supposed “best” place in the world where they did away with teaching: the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton. According to Feynman:
    The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, in my opinion, has ruined more good scientists than any institution has created, judged by what they did before they came and judged by what they did after. Not that they weren’t good afterwards, but they were superb before they got there and were only good afterwards.
    And you think the IAS at the ANU was somehow more successful than this? I don’t see any successful research-only model here in the US, but I do see the best research done in the world.
     
    JohnS


  17. Stephen King says:

    John.: One example – first year economics at Harvard University. Whole course is taught by graduate students (often grad law with little economics) teaching some of the best and brightest minds you will ever see. When I taught in the program the best teacher was a history PhD student. 

    I think that research and graduate teaching may be complementary – but not at the undergraduate level.
     
    Please note – I think undergraduate teaching is incredibly important. That is why I have co-authored an undergraduate textbook and have a history of volunteering to teach key ‘principles’ courses. And I will be teaching first year again next year. But being a researcher will not make me a better first year teacher than someone who is a specialist teacher. 

    HC questioned whether we need 40% of young people going to University. But it is government policy and our undergraduate programs are rapidly expanding to meet this target. 

    Rabee wants to keep teaching cross subsidising research. OK – but why undergraduate teaching? If you like undergraduate teaching to subsidise research, why not high school teaching.

    With large increases in undergraduate numbers the current model of undergraduate education is unsustainable. What we need to think about is how to rework the system to make it sustainable for world-class research and graduate education. 

  18. rabee says:

    Stephen, 

    Each year Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Berkeley, Yale compete to attract Australian first class honours students to their PhD programs. I feel sorry for Yale, which usual doesn’t get a look in because they’re perceived as being one notch below MIT, Harvard, Princeton.  

    This happens because we have perhaps the best undergraduate programs in the world and have a very long tradition in providing top notch undergraduate education. One reason we can do this is because Australian students tend to go locally for undergraduate training (they stay in the same city as their parents).

    I’m uncomfortable about structural changes that put in jeopardy our undergraduate programs and separates them from the top research groups.

    I’m also not sure that an Australian student with an offer from Berkeley  will want to do his PhD in Melbourne or Monash or  Brisbane. In fact, I think that in economics Australian students are usually excited about travelling overseas to do a PhD (they would even choose Cambridge over Melbourne or Monash, lol).

    I guess I’m not thinking about other disciplines, in economics things are presently working well, very well. 
     
       

  19. JohnS says:

    Stephen,
    Your point that Harvard first year UG is taught badly supports my argument that a good UG program needs to be taught by researchers—not others (law students, for example). The later year courses are taught by researchers at Harvard, and that’s what saves the program. It would be even better if the researchers taught first year undergrad. Surely you would agree with that!
     

  20. Stephen King says:

    JohnS – I didn’t say that the first year at Harvard was taught badly. You incorrectly inferred that. Did you assume that because the best teacher was a history PhD student that it was badly taught? That teacher is one of the best in the world and is now a Professor at HBS! 
    You do not need a top class researcher to teach undergraduate economics and I suspect that holds for all other disciplines as well. Even the best and brightest students can receive an excellent undergraduate education – from enthusiastic teachers who are not leading researchers.
    Interestingly the Australian today noted the need for extra resources to teach the undergraduates with lower ATARs that are entering University (and the legal risk to universities if those students do not receive extra support). The idea that this sort of mass undergraduate education must be provided by world-class researchers is – in my opinion – absurd. 

  21. Stephen King says:

    Rabee – you note that the best and brightest honours graduates from Go8 universities go on to PhDs at the top Universities in the world. Agree. But then you should support changing the system! Why?
    1. The current system is designed for the smal number of top students. But do the maths. Using UniMelb figures from when I taught there, about 1600 students took first year economics. About 40 did honours. About 10 did PhDs. Let’s be generous and boost that to 50 over the whole faculty. So we have a system designed for the top 3% of the top 5% of students (UniMelb cutoff was about 95). So the current system caters very well to the top 0.15% of students. But we are facing mass undergraduate education.
    2. The system is ‘failing’ many smart undergraduates. I have seen ‘top’ economics students from Australian Universities who have not managed the first six months of a PhD program at a Go8. God help them if they had gone overseas. The current system has too many ‘researchers’ teaching undergraduates badly. Specialist teachers would most likely raise the quality of undergraduate education at many Australian universities – not lower it.

    You mention that we are debating ‘the kind of specialisation’ in universities. Agreed – but what is your alternative? If it is that the Go8 Universities become research-teaching institutions and all other universities lose their research funding then you are facing one hell of a fight. if you are not suggesting this then what are you suggesting as a feasible alternative? And if you are supporting the status quo, can you tell me where the 25,000 world-class academics are coming from?

  22. David Marks says:

    Stephen,

    I’m finding this discussion very interesting.  What I’m having trouble seeing is what practical institutional arrangements from a teacher-career point of view could lead to the better outcome you foresee.  It’s like you’re showing me a partial equilibrium and I’m having trouble seeing a GE solution.

    I agree that not every great teacher needs to be an active researcher.  I’ve had great teachers who were (including you in first year Micro, your first year as a Professor at Melbourne – don’t sell yourself short, you are an exceptional educator).  I’ve also had superb teachers who were not active, and terrible teachers who were active (and brilliant) in research.

    However, currently there are very few careers in Australia for undergraduate teachers.  Most non-research teaching-only positions are on a casual basis.  Where will all these specialist teachers come from if there is so little incentive to pursue an undergraduate teaching career above outside options in government, industry, research, etc. which are more likely to provide earnings stability and the potential for career progression (and, for some so driven, greater social status)?

    So I’d be interested to understand, given the stickiness of existing institutional arrangements such as casual teaching, particularly in the face of funding constraints, how you would address the market for teachers as part of this proposal.

    As an aside, returning to university recently for a Masters (after being inspired by teachers such as yourself and Rabee during my youth), the present system does seem to be struggling at both ends of the achievement spectrum: it’s not scalable enough for the mass undergraduate education being targeted, but equally the curriculum in many subjects/courses is being watered down to make it more accessible (even those economics PhD students who do make it to overseas institutions would have benefited from more mathematics earlier on, for example, rather than the ‘jump’ they inevitably experience at honours or graduate level).

  23. JohnS says:

    Stephen,
    It’s obvious, then, that you need the good Harvard Professors to *choose* the first-year instructors. Without them in charge, you will have mediocre first year instructors chosen by the ill-informed. Do you have a set of examples without good researchers present and in control?

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