A portrait of decline

Some books are so splendidly angry that, even as you read them and get sad and depressed by what they reveal, you can’t help enjoying the sight of the baddies getting what they deserve. One such book, which I read a long time ago, was Dee Brown’s Hear that Lonesome Whistle Blow, describing in detail how the American railroad builders ripped off the government, people and posterity on an industrial scale to become rich beyond the dreams of avarice.

I have just read another such book, Australian Universities: A Portrait of Decline, by my fellow University of Queensland alumnus Donald Meyers. If you wonder why I am discussing a book about Australian universities here, one of the reasons is that what he describes is happening in Britain (and, I suspect, many other places too). You will probably recognise some of this. I am afraid that in this area the baddies haven’t yet got their come-uppance.

Meyers spent about ten years of a very varied career in academia. He returned to the industrial sector on being made redundant after, according to his story, a trial by witch-hunt in which the authorities did not let facts stand in the way of their determination to be rid of him. He wrote the book, which contains stories from many other Australian universities (though not as many as he would have liked, since colleagues were understandaby reluctant to come forward), but was unable to find either a commercial or an academic publisher for it, and in the end published it on the web himself. It is here: please read it!

As a minor consequence, the book shows the need of a copy-editor’s hand in a few places, notably the French expression “et viola!”.

The American lawyer and philosopher Michael Sandel said,

… the university’s purpose … is not to maximize revenue but to serve the common good through teaching and research. It is true that teaching and research are expensive, and universities devote much effort to fund-raising. But when the goal of money making predominates … the university has strayed far from the scholarly and civic goods that are its primary reason for being.

Meyers describes how, in Australia at least, universities did stray. Government policy (in widening access, introducing student fees, and tying funding to student numbers) made it necessary for universities to concentrate on recruitment and retention at the expense of academic standards. They brought in managers who naturally thought of the universities’ function in terms of private goods to be sold for gain. These managers replaced the elected department heads and deans who represented the academics; instead, the managers simply implement decisions from higher up without regard to academic considerations; and academics are kept under management’s thumb by an endless stream of reviews, assessments, performance indicators, workload allocation models, and so forth.

The mindset that makes education a commodity encourages students to think that they are buying it with no effort on their part. After all, would you buy a television that required three years’ concentrated effort before you could use it?

It is difficult to resist quoting huge chunks of the book at length. I will restrict myself to just one extended quotation. I find this belivable only because I have seen an almost identical scenario at first hand.

Plan fever has now reached the stage where all staff must have their own plan, which will be called something like Personal Performance Plan. The staff member’s performance goals must be aligned with the goals of the university’s strategic plan and be reviewed and approved by their Cost Centre Manager.

In typical fashion, the University will hire a consultant to design the system and processes to be used to track and document staff performance. The university will then employ staff dedicated to the preparation of voluminous guidance; much of it looking like it was lifted almost verbatim from a human resources text book. Training workshops will be run to “assist” academics to prepare their plans and to oversee the implementation and maintenance of the system across the university.

The personal performance plan was created by bureaucrats to coerce staff to focus on the achievement of bureaucratic goals and is primarily a reflection of management’s view of career development. Indeed, RMIT’s personal performance planning system, which is now web based, is called MyCareer/MyPerformance … in keeping with the MyEverything websites established at great cost by the Commonwealth government.

Indeed. And the case with which I am familiar was one of the two things that pushed me into taking retirement, although there was no legal need for me to do so.

Another factor in the decline in Australian universities has been the decline in Australian schools, which Meyers attributes largely to the pernicious effects of “Educationalists”:

The constant push by Educationalists to remove repetition from the learning paradigm and have children “discover” the facts of mathematics and science for themselves stems from their belief, in contradiction to the facts, that skill and knowledge acquisition is primarily a cognitive, intelligence-related “discovery” process. Yet, even for adults, cerebral learning is far less dominant in the transference of skills and concepts than is commonly appreciated. “See-one, do-one” yields far better results than “imagine-one, do-one”!

Every student must leave high school with a certificate; none must be permitted to fail. So what does the certificate mean?

As a result of these attitudes in schools and the funding pressure on universities to take everyone who applies, more and more of the universities’ resource has to go into remedial teaching to make up for so many years of damage in schools.

What better indicator of this than a negative comment which he received on a student questionnaire: “The lecturer tried to teach us stuff we didn’t know”(!)

All this is very sad for me. In the 1960s I received a really excellent education at the University of Queensland. I arrived in Oxford to do a DPhil in algebra knowing marginally less algebra than the other algebra students but far more quantum theory, functional analysis, and so on, than they did (and I have never regretted this knowledge). In the second year, there was no probability in the Mathematics honours course, but I took the Physics honours course at the same time, and learnt probability there as a prelude to quantum mechanics. In my third year, probability and statistics were retrospectively introduced into the second year syllabus and I was allowed to take them informally; I sat the exam and, by bureaucratic error, was awarded a second pass for the entire year! In the fourth year I learned subjects ranging from number theory to partial differential equations. My education was elitist, in the sense that it was a good education. What a tragedy if this were destroyed by people who know nothing about how to train a mathematician!

Indeed, Meyers contrasts the Australian attitude to tertiary education with the attitude to sport, where excellence is achieved by a combination of selecting talent and a lot of hard work. He says,

It is clear to all that our prowess in sport is achieved by focusing resources on those who have the talent, motivation and demonstrated ability to achieve in their chosen discipline. Unfortunately, education is not seen as important as sport. It is not a spectator event until the bridge collapses or the patient accidentally dies—and you can’t sell the TV rights in advance either!

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About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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11 Responses to A portrait of decline

  1. Bob Walters says:

    I have had a quick look at the book and all of it rings true. I must admit that, like the proverbial frog in hot water, I only understood the extent of the decline when I was leaving the Australian university system. One crucial point for me in realizing what change was occurring was that the criteria for promotion came to include excellence in teaching (what could be wrong with that?). Unfortunately “excellence in teaching” was defined to be “publishing research in teaching”.

    • That was to me one of the most worrying things in the book. We have seen most of the rest of the decline in Britain, but not that (yet), fortunately!

      On second thoughts, new staff do have to write an essay on this nonsense in order to pass probation, which has been problematic for some of my colleagues.

  2. Jon Awbrey says:

    There is a large literature on the topic of Academic Capitalism. Here are references to a seminal work and survey paper on the subject —

    Slaughter, S. and Leslie, L.L. (1997), Academic Capitalism : Politics, Policies, and the Entrepreneurial University, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD.

    Awbrey, S.M. (2003), “Making the ‘Invisible Hand’ Visible : The Case for Dialogue About Academic Capitalism”, Oakland Journal, No. 5, Oakland University Press, Rochester, MI.

  3. Jon Awbrey says:

    From a U.S. perspective, it is not so much the content and direction of curriculum reforms that one needs to worry about as a corporate-driven shift in the locus of control to points outside the communities who do the work of research and teaching.

  4. Dima says:

    Sounds painfully familiar. A local variation: here “excellence in teaching” means being able to score higher than the average teaching evaluations from the students. Needless to say, there are courses which are naturally harder for students, etc etc etc…

    • Jon Awbrey says:

      As usual, the United States of Htrae is carrying the madness of VAMpirism to its most devastating extremes. A good place to sample how bad it can get is the blog of education historian, Diane Ravitch. It will either make you feel very lucky to be an ocean away, or fear all the more for what the future might bring.

  5. John Bamberg says:

    I’ve just read “Whackademia” by Richard Hil, which contains hundreds of quotes from Australian academics and their experiences in the over-examined life. Next time I bump into you, I’ll pass it on to you …

  6. John Doe says:

    To those that are interested, the original website is no longer online, yet the book is available from Web Archive (https://web.archive.org/web/20130113185356/http://www.australianuniversities.id.au/Australian_Universities-A_Portrait_of_Decline.pdf)

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