The university protectionists

A week after the Group of Eight launched its higher education reform package, we start to get a backlash, as the anxieties of other universities appear in the media.

From University of Sunshine Coast VC Paul Thomas came a variation on that old favourite of protectionists, the infant industry argument, except his infant institutions would be approaching middle age before they could face competition:

younger universities needed to be given the same opportunity as their Go8 counterparts to build up over decades.

So a generation of students should miss out on choice in the (unlikely) hope that the University of Sunshine Coast can become like the University of Queensland. But why should USC be like UQ? It is one of the mysteries of Australian higher education that universities would rather open themselves to ridicule as implausible would-be research institutions than be good teaching and regional institutions.

From (somewhat surprisingly) Greg Craven of Curtin University comes the same preoccupation with university hierarchy:

“At the end of the day it is a prescription to make richer and powerful institutions even richer and more powerful, with very grave consequences for the sector as a whole,” said Curtin University of Technology deputy vice-chancellor Greg Craven.

Given the lack of price sensitivity shown by Australian students, almost all institutions would probably increase their income under the proposal. Curtin in particular has shown entrepreneurial flair. DEST’s student enrolment statistics show that it has the second-largest number of international enrolments in the country. Yet its worry is that if the Group of Eight get to increase their prices the most, they may move further ahead in the research rankings. This is the kind of argument that Bruce Chapman makes. But what should drive public policy, the status obsessions of academics or the interests of students?

That academics are so heavily oriented towards their status preoccupations adds to the case for a market-driven system to balance the incentive structures. They want to take students for granted so that they can focus on their other concerns. Governments should not let them.

22 thoughts on “The university protectionists

  1. It is one of the mysteries of Australian higher education that universities would rather open themselves to ridicule as implausible would-be research institutions than be good teaching and regional institutions.

    This isn’t really a mystery. Government and universities are engaged in a supply-side conspiracy against the consumer (students) – with no, or little, price competition producers can engage in their preferences and not worry about consumer satisfaction. The too-important-to-fail industry policy that government pursues also allows universities to get away with it.

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  2. Greg Craven has an op-ed in the Australian today.

    I don’t want to ‘Fisk’ him, but it really is disgraceful. There is a lot to disagree with, but this, I think , is the worst.

    Interestingly, the Go8 does not seem bothered that its prescription runs directly counter to a fundamental value embedded in the higher education policies of both main political forces.
    This is the notion of diversity.

    Diversity is, in and of itself, not an educational value and should never be an educational value. Educational excellence should be the only value that public policy promotes. It is not clear that public policy should should protect competitors and promote the interests of existing institutions. All institutions should be asking themselves why they deserve to survive. Mere existence is not enough in answering that question.

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  3. Sinclair – Yes, a very bad op-ed. Take this contempt for his own institution’s students:

    “As the service universities abandon basic research to the Go8, they should fill up nicely with teachers, nurses, health professionals and other worker ants to whom serious inquiry is of little relevance.”

    Yet more evidence that universities cannot be trusted to put the interests of student ahead of their own vanities.

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  4. Given that it is exceptionally difficulty to find university staff in some areas, then, to some extent, the obsessions of academics need to be taken into account, otherwise you are going to have morons teaching even less than now. It would be good to know, for instance, where you intend to find teaching staff in courses like engineering at a teaching only university.
    On a different note, I presume one of the reasons the universities love these tables is in no small part because the general public (including employers) loves them too as do government funding agencies that dole out the money. If you want to get rid of the obsessions, then getting both the general public and the government not to believe in them first would be a good idea.

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  5. Diversity is, in and of itself, not an educational value and should never be an educational value. Educational excellence should be the only value that public policy promotes.

    Educational excellence is hard to quantify, and chances are government will not do it well.

    Government policy should be loose enough to enable niche markets and specialisation to develop, but not so loose that the benefits of tertiary education and research should be lost to Australia (and no, having institutions physically present while controlled from offshore will not be a positive policy outcome).

    Craven says:

    Newer, innovative universities have no hope of competing on equal terms with these cheerful Telstras of Australian higher education.

    I would argue that the Innovative Research Unis are indeed competing on equal terms with the Go8 unis in a number of high-profile and lucrative areas, and that the latter’s recent paper was something of a rearguard action in many respects. I also note that the institution Craven works for is not part of the IRUA.

    A little embarrassingly, of course, the vast majority of Australian students would find themselves attending one of these research-free zones.

    In an era of continuous education, and following my post in the “multiple careers” thread on this site, what could possibly be “embarrassing” about getting a Bachelor’s degree from Average Teaching University followed by a Master’s from University of Sandstone? Or vice versa? That’s even if we accept Craven’s Manichean vision of only two types of university. The snobby line Andrew N points out is worse than offensive, it shows that Craven has no real idea about the workforce for which he would claim to be preparing his students. This is an indictment of someone claiming to work in strategy and planning.

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  6. Educational excellence is hard to quantify, and chances are government will not do it well.

    I am not doubting that it is hard to measure, but at present I’m not convinced it is done at all. There is nothing wrong with individual universities pursuing ‘diversity’ if that is what they want to do, but government policy should not have that objective.

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  7. You’re all assuming Greg Craven is sound because he writes for Quadrant and stuff. But Craven is a conservative in the traditional sense, and such conservatives cannot be trusted. They are fundamentally worse than social democrats.

    I’ve done the fisking for you

    http://catallaxyfiles.com/?p=2914

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  8. Speak for yourself, Jason. I’ve never believed that slapping a label on someone either validates or invalidates an argument by itself. The editor of that magazine is a riddle wrapped in a conundrum and many of Quadrant’s contributors can be hard to pin down to any consistent intellectual position.

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  9. Sinclair, you seem to be saying that this area of policy should only ever be judged by its own standards and not placed in a wider context. Other parts of our society/economy are regulated with a view to diversity and competitiveness without selling out completely to overseas competitors, and education would do well to be regulated similarly.

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  10. Great post, Andrew. The Greg Craven quote is a corker. The irony is he lectured in con & admin law at Melb Uni in the ’90s and was widely recognised as a stimulating teacher, in contrast to the more published but soporific Cheryl Saunders.

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  11. Rajat – Indeed. His most recent book Conversations with the Constitution is excellent, and he is a witty and entertaining speaker. But he is wrong, seriously wrong, on this one.

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  12. Sorry, Andrew E, you’ll have to give an example. I’m saying that the government funds education and expects students to receive a good education. As long as that is delivered why do they care about who delivers it or how many different universities there are? Craven is making an argument for the survival of the weakest because this promotes ‘diversity’. Yet it is not clear how or why this diversity adds value to education.

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  13. “Rajat – Indeed. His most recent book Conversations with the Constitution is excellent, and he is a witty and entertaining speaker. But he is wrong, seriously wrong, on this one.”

    Perhaps Craven provides yet another example of how people who can think clearly about problems in one field of expertise can’t always do the same in an area outside that field.

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  14. I would have thought that the G8 proposal would promote diversity in any case by forcing the various unis to specialise in order to be attractive, rather than madly trying to provide all the same types of degrees.

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  15. I’m saying that the government funds education and expects students to receive a good education.

    Indeed you are. And you’re saying that education can only be judged by educational standards, presumably by people with long records in education from a relatively narrow range of educational institutions, who have all known one another for decades and who all agree (or who agree to disagree, but are well versed with the other’s positions on matters educational if nothing else) that they know excellence when they see it.

    I disagree that education-for-education’s-sake is the only criteria for judging education or for allocating funding to it. What constitutes “a good education” is not the exclusive province of educators. Entropy’s points are worth noting.

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  16. I’m just your mug punter parent. Faced with the prospect of a ginormous bill for purchasing a liberal education for my son, I opted for Cambridge in the UK. It costs about the same, but the education they offered was not vocational, or low grade, or resources starved, or politicised.

    Education is an elitist activity at the higher levels – you don’t get into the institute of sport unless you’re fit – neither should you get into a university of the mind if your only qualification is daddy’s chk book.

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  17. I see what you’re getting at. I think some of the confusion sets in because ‘diversity’ has multiple meanings. I agree that judging what constitutes a good education should not be the “exclusive province of educators” – for exactly the reasons you give. Further I agree that education for education sake is not the only criteria of an education system. But I don’t think that diversity (in many of its meanings should be a prime motivator for government invlovement in education).

    Looking at Craven’s argument, he wants divsersity to mean that a range of different universities with presumbably different objective functions and different speciali

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  18. Sorry about that.

    Looking favorably at Craven’s argument, he seems to want diversity to mean that a range of different universities with presumably different objective functions and different specialities provide education in Australia. Well, okay. Lets explore that idea – as Andrew argues here, and often, Australian univerities have a single funding model and single business model that drives them to convergence on objective functions. (IMHO the policy Craven argues against will promote this type of diversity, but not for diversities sake).

    Looking cynically at Craven’s argument, he is saying that some institutions will not survive as universities and diversity means that the number of different institutions should be maximised (because, perhaps, there is a some inherent value in diversity). This is a discredited notion from competiton policy that say competition policy should exist to protect competitors and not competition. This is a policy that promotes and protects the weakest institutions and favours producer interests – not consumer interests (i.e. the students).

    Other forms of diversity revolve around maximising the socio-economic variation on campus. This is a form of social engineering that is entirely immoral. It began with the fear that intellectually capable individuals from low socio-economic groups were being excluded rom an education (perhaps a legitimate fear) and evolved into a diversity for its own sake crusade. We saw the nonsense of this at QUT where a staff member was able to argue that the university had a duty towards the disadvantaged, and he thought that this trumped his own duty to the students. Quite rightly, he’ll have plenty of time to think about that priority.

    So my point this this: However education is defined ‘vocational’, ‘technical’, ‘theoretical’, whatever, the government should through its policy pursue that objective (mind you I’d prefer the government to not pursue any post-secondary education policy). I have not seen any argument supporting the notion that government should support diversity for its own sake. If you recall Craven described that as a ‘fundamental value’ of education policy.

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  19. Craven’s article is an extraordinary Philippic, but it leaves the reader with more questions than answers.

    For one: how will the Go8’s proposal undermine the current approach’s “fostering innovation, difference and real competition between approaches and strengths”? I would have thought that, in order for ‘vulnerable institutions’ to protect the student base from Go8 ‘raids’, they would have to intensify their innovation etc.

    And how can the non-sandstone universities have an ‘unraidable’ base at the moment? Students can currently study anywhere that they like, so long as they pass the entrace criteria – how would this change under the Go8’s plan??

    It would be nice if Craven joined us for a Q&A, so that we could sift through the hyperbole and find some supported arguments. Unfortunately, all that we have at present is a polemic. Andrew, is there any chance of inviting the Professor to come and answer some questions?

    Sinclair, I think your analysis is spot on.

    Hughesy, I’m sorry but I can’t say the same for you!

    “Education is an elitist activity at the higher levels – you don’t get into the institute of sport unless you’re fit – neither should you get into a university of the mind if your only qualification is daddy’s chk book.”

    What a statement! There’s so much there to grapple with. Can I start with this: why shouldn’t people be allowed to spend their own money on something that educates them or their relatives? If it’s better for society that people be more educated, why would you want to prevent this?

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  20. “Students can currently study anywhere that they like, so long as they pass the entrace criteria – how would this change under the Go8’s plan??”

    Though the entrance criterion for a course is usually the intersection of supply and demand, and while students are free to apply anywhere they like their prospects of success depend on the level of supply – Go8’s plan would allow universities to change supply upwards, which Craven fears.

    However, higher prices at Go8 universities may reduce demand.

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  21. “Go8’s plan would allow universities to change supply upwards, which Craven fears.”

    But what is actually wrong with that?? Is Craven arguing that we shouldn’t increase the number of university places? Or that we should only increase the number of university places at universities of which he approves?

    I really wish he were online to (try to) defend his essay.

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