Australian universities are admin-heavy, have high student-academic ratios and in recent years have seen a race to the bottom in standards, related to a battle over student numbers. The selling out of previously amassed reputation by reducing entry barriers most recently became official policy at UNSW and the University of Sydney (the ‘no ATAR’ rule that is hurting UWS), but merely followed standard practise in many other places. These forces have long been foretold by academic papers of decades past, so those looking to get their teeth into the question how it all came about should glance at this paper from 10 year ago, or this other old one, or this most recent one.
Government is now also waking up to this reality, witnessed most recently by a consultancy report by Ernst and Young that says about the future that “University asset bases and administrations will need to be significantly leaner than they are today.” In the US too has the explosion of administrators who give themselves fantastic salaries but don’t seem to add much been noted.
Whilst the Australian audience, which includes the education ministries and the general public, does not seem to realise the full scale of the governance problems in the university sector, even the insiders who do know the problem face an uphill battle in trying to think of solutions. Indeed, in this respect the consultancy report mentioned has no clue as to what to do and merely pushes hollow phrases like ‘universities will need to have a clear strategy’.
Rather than discuss what is wrong with popular particular proposals, like vouchers or privatisation, let us mainly try and get a handle on the quite baffling array of barriers that any solution has to navigate. Along the way you will get an appreciation for just what the underlying economics of our universities really are:
- Forget about anything that requires a wholesale increase in standards, mainly because that would cost us the overseas students who come for our easy degrees (the really smart ones do not come here unless by mistake). Hence a university inspectorate or something that would truly try to enforce high uniform standards for degrees is unlikely to get real traction. Indeed, as almost 40% of the population gets pushed through university, one can by implications not have super-high standards for normal undergrad courses.
- Forget about anything that costs more money. The call for reform only has a chance when times are lean and people are looking for savings.
- Forget about anything that needs the tertiary education unions on-side. You see, what are superfluous workers from the point of view of society includes fee-paying members from the point of view of the unions. They are members precisely because they need more protection than their more useful counterparts. Hence unions will be violently opposed to anything that would actually lead to real cost cutting.
- Forget about the active help of the academics. Sad to say, but when it comes to it, we are cowards. We have cushy jobs and those of us who are the best placed to push through ideas and reforms have the cushiest jobs of all, meaning they have a lot to lose and almost nothing to gain. We don’t mind telling you to what to do and engender a brain-storm session like this one, but realistically speaking we are not going to do it ourselves.
- Forget about mandating anything to do with who works at universities, like ratios of academics to administrators or rules on consulting. The reason why this is off the table has to do with the ambiguous answer to the question which part of government actually controls universities. You see, most things to do with budgets goes via the central government, including HECS fees, central grants, student Visas, etc. Yet, the legal power in universities rests with their senates or university councils. These are ultimately appointed mainly by the local state ministers for education who otherwise have few dealings with the universities in their state. This gives the local ministers the incentives to pay little attention to whom they appoint on these councils whilst blaming Canberra for everything. This is truly a knotty problem because universities exist by local and national acts of parliament. The current situation reflects the balance of responsibilities for education across these two tiers of government. To streamline the outside lines of authority operating on universities would require changes in the relative power between states and the commonwealth (one way or the other), no doubt in the face of furious lobbying by all concerned. To end up with one body that truly controls universities (local or central, does not matter) would then only occur if the problems are so open and so vast that people are desperate. Till then the state ministers have every incentive to look away whilst the commonwealth lacks the actual ability to force university rulers to do their bidding. Hence anything involving the appointment of the top people in universities (the core power) is immediately off the table.
- Forget about anything that requires lots of student mobility, such as competition between universities in different cities or even competition between existing universities within cities. The main reason why this is off the table is that mobility in general in Australia is low and students now overwhelmingly stay at home in order to avoid the very high costs of accommodation if they move out. Hence the cost of accommodation and the strong local social ties of their students mean universities have captured markets. They do not need to compete for a large slice of the students and the number of people they do need to compete for (those with strong disciplinary interests or particularly knowledgeable parents) is too low to care about. You can see the results of this captured-market thinking all over Australia: the Perth experiment is basically an exercise in wangling more money out of the people who go there anyway, copying the same experiment in Melbourne where there was a bit of a local competitor (Monash) who made them pay somewhat for dumbing-down their degrees. The ability to muddle the waters via all those fake ‘accreditations’ has meant that the competition on quality is furthermore really a very thin market. Competition on quality is basically now no longer existent for the mass degrees.
- Forget about anything that implies elite universities and ‘other universities’. A popular fantasy amongst GO8 scholars is that they should get more money and all the money going to research at other universities should go to them. Pure myth. Why? This is where the egalitarian culture and state governments get into the act: the egalitarian ethos makes it impossible to allocate central money solely to selective entities, unless one takes away the title of ‘university’ from most of the others. Yet that in turn is impossible because we all want our kids to have a university degree even if they are not smart enough to have a real one, which again is an egalitarian wish. So politicians will block any move to take university status away from any of the existing ones. Moreover, state governments want their local universities to be ‘world leading’, even if they are out in the bush and have few students. There is simply no way that state governments would agree with plans to officially have their universities labelled as second-rate. Quite the contrary: expect all these forces to further level the playing field between all the universities in the future.
- Forget about the private sector coming in to save the day, either in the form of private universities somewhere remote or as overseas universities taking over some local entity. Indeed, forget about private sector forces within any of the universities that currently pretend to be run like the private sector. Why? Because the real ‘rent’ on which all the big universities float is neither their reputation nor their captured market of current students, but rather their property. The big inner-city universities are sitting on billions of dollars of prime real estate that they are only allowed to use for teaching and research. Their returns are paltry compared to just putting apartment blocks on the same land. If they were thus truly private or run for-profit, they would cease being universities in a second and just sell all their buildings and land. For the same reason is it simply too expensive for any overseas or private university to buy their way into the Australian system.
Would-be reformers of the Australian higher-education system thus have to be exceedingly clever and creative. They must come up with a way of improving the incentives within universities so that it fires the ones that are useless and increases the power of those more useful, yet they must do this with their hands tied behind their backs. They must brave the current powers-that-be, including the unions. They can neither pour more money into the system, change the legal governance structure, call in foreign or private forces, concentrate research in a select few universities, mandate standards, or count on mobility as an organising force. Oh, and it shouldn’t be too hard to explain either because otherwise no politician will run with it.
All that the would-be reformers potentially have on their side is parts of the commonwealth bureaucracy and limited public and business support. Some of the academics will cheer them on, but don’t expect real help from them either.
Seems like an impossible challenge, does it not? It has certainly been too much for a whole generation of would-be reformers.
I do not have the answers either. I have some vague ideas that I will put in future posts (along with discussing the ideas of the commenters!) but nothing I would put my hand into the fire for. It is really a tough one.
Since they are the only ones with something real to gain, perhaps it should be concerned parents and budding students who should try and think up something that would actually have a chance. Or perhaps concerned businessmen should take up the challenge? Or perhaps a coalition of them?
So, with a clearer picture of all the barriers and incentives, I encourage the readers to put mode ideas in the thread below. The ones put on the comment thread sofar include a couple of quite innovative ones (and I do plan to come back to them!) and it would be useful to see a few more!