Could we have a real ‘education revolution’?

Submissions to the Bradley review of higher education policy are now appearing on the DEEWR website. As a veteran of such reviews – this is the third comprehensive review I have been involved with in just over a decade – my expectations of its outcomes are modest. I have two failures behind me.

But in The Weekend Australian yesterday there was some sign that the government is thinking seriously about the structural issues that keep the education system so far below its potential. In a page one story, they report a proposal to use federal incentive payments to get funding for vocational education to be based on student demand (aka vouchers) rather than institutional grants.

If vocational education, why not higher education? There are no states to deal with, just a Senate in which Labor would get an overwhelming majority if a party that has no ideological grounds for opposing student choice voted with it (despite its failure to implement it while in office).

I’ve yet to read more than a handful of submissions to the review, but both the University of Melbourne submission (pdf) and my own submission (pdf) explain how the current system of centralised allocation is highly dysfunctional.

Certainly, there will be protectionists within the higher education sector who will oppose student choice (advice to would-be students: if the vice-chancellor of the university you are thinking of choosing thinks it cannot survive in a competitive market, take it as a sign from the top that it isn’t much good). But most Vice-Chancellors have little political clout, and their shameful desire to sacrifice the interests of students to their institutional interests should be rejected

The only aspect of a student-demand driven system likely to have real political influence is the possible impact on regional campuses. Though there is no good data on what might happen to enrolments at these campuses in a more choice driven system, their typically low ENTER scores suggest that for many university applicants these are campuses of last resort.

Personally, I don’t have any difficulty with closing campuses where the costs exceed the benefits. But if a political decision is made that these campuses need to be kept open, the policy mechanism for doing so is surely not to corrupt the entire system, imposing huge costs on students, universities and the broader economy, but to use direct subsidy to prop up otherwise non-viable regional campuses.

So the political costs of switching to a demand-driven system are modest and manageable. I’m not getting my hopes up too much, but it seems just possible that, as in the 1980s and early 1990s, Labor will introduce market reforms where the Coalition had failed to do so.

5 thoughts on “Could we have a real ‘education revolution’?

  1. Andrew, flicking through your submission I have the following comments:
    1) Any evidence that the type of teacher training on offer to university people increases performance — or more realistically, increases performance more than spending on other things that would (e.g., infrastructure)? We know already that data from high-school teachers getting additional Masters qualifications shows no correlation between these and performance. My personal experience of this is that what is being taught in these courses is mush catering to many people who don’t really care and are getting the certificate because they have to. The most handy thing I had was unofficial mentoring by someone who taught in the high school system extremely effectively for 20 years and another guy who really is interested in doing the best job he can do teaching (not exceptionally common given the competing demands everyone has).
    2) I did an item analysis on something very similar to the CEQ, and it basically has no validity. You may as well have had a single question “good or bad”. If you can get the data set (or even an MU one — that should available to you), my suggestion is that you do a factor analysis on it, and what you’ll find is just one big mess.
    3) You can point to the CEQ all you want as a source of data, but given that degree quality has gone down since its inception (and all the other variants individual universities have), then what you are looking at is a negative correlation between happiness and degree quality, and the reason is obvious — It’s easy to make students happy by manipulating things that have nothing to do with learning by making courses easy, and this is what many people have done to please their managment. As far as I’m concerned, the overall effect of all this monitoring may well have been negative, since the CEQ does not measure real outcomes apart from happiness yet still has consequences.
    3.1) It would be simple to prove I’m not just being cynical here — you could correlate variations in course happiness with quantifiable results (e.g., results from maths subjects that are basically identical from year to year). Yet no-one does this, because no-one wants to find out the answer.
    4) Lots of missed first preferances are surely people being unrealistic. In addition, many courses are simply not easy to expand since they are essentially quantal in terms of enrollment needed due to staff/infrastructure requirements.
    5) Even the tiny amount of unmet demand there is for most courses is likely to be an overstatement, since no-one wants to report accepting everyone.
    6) Due to (5), most universities already essentially bid for students in most courses, so central allocation is not such a problem that it once was.
    7) Most of the courses people can’t get into these days (assuming realistic preferances), are small for reasons not directly to do with the government (like the medical mafia).

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  2. Conrad – I need to start with points (2) and (3). The CEQ is not ideal, but has the advantage of a common set of questions across many institutions and many years. The whole-of-experience nature of the CEQ limits subject-level effects such as whether the student did or did not like the teacher or judging a teacher on whether he or she was a tough or soft marker.

    It is not true that it can be reduced to ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – the very different results for different questions rule that out. I am only focusing on specific questions, not the the overall satisfaction question. If students don’t think explanations are clear or don’t get feedback on their work then this is prima facie a problem, whether or not degrees have been dumbed down (though it is very hard to get good evidence on this too – a reading of university histories shows that academics always think that things are getting worse).

    I haven’t seen studies of the effectiveness of teaching qualifications. But it seems to me to be highly unlikely that alone among occupations university teaching has no skills that can be taught.

    Having observed universities for quite a while now, I think they are slowly changing from being particularly backward and amateurish parts of the public service to being modern, professional service organisations – qualifications for teaching are part of this.

    Reflecting the low level of interest in this field, there is no good analysis of the applications data available. However, the massive differences between states in what proportion of people get their first preference is prima facie evidence that this is not just unrealistic preferences, though that is surely part of it. The fact that universities routinely give places to fee-paying students on lower scores (only internationals from 2009) suggests that there are no inherent capacity or academic reasons standing in the way of meeting more first preferences.

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  3. I have always maintained that first year should be used to give every one a second chance. University learning is quite different to high school, it does required a bit of self motivation, and you no longer have to deal with teachers being worried about trivial issues like straight ties and short or long dresses (depending on what is not in fashion). To put it another way, scores shouldn’t matter too much, the University can sort it all out by the Second term using a small item called an exam.

    I do wonder about the desire to skill up the teaching skills, it really helps if the lecturer knows his or her topic, however at some point you do have to learn to learn by yourself.

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  4. “I haven’t seen studies of the effectiveness of teaching qualifications. But it seems to me to be highly unlikely that alone among occupations university teaching has no skills that can be taught.”… “professional service organizations…qualifications for teaching are part of this.”
    I completely agree that you could be taught teaching skills. However, it should be exceptionally easy to test whether what is being taught does anything. As a first step, use two groups, those that do and those that don’t, and compare means on all the measures everyone collects (plus obvious covariates). Do those that do score higher ratings? Every university must have this data, it should be ridiculously easy to do, but I’ve never seen anyone ever report it. That’s why I’m betting that there is essentially no effect — because many people are doing these courses because the government asked them and their universities forced them, not because they wanted too, and no university wants to admit this. This is essentially an identical debate as the one about high school teachers getting Master’s degrees — all good in theory but in practice it’s a waste of time.

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  5. Andrew, I’ve actually come to be optimistic about the medium term outcomes in education, based on what has happened in Australia over the last twenty-five years.

    If you think about bad policy choices, they tend to demonstrate their poverty over time. It may take a long time, but, because they are bad, they fail.

    As a result, policymakers start looking round for new ideas to implement. If good ideas are available, and can be demonstrated to be good, or at least to have worked elsewhere, there is a chance that they will be implemented. And, once implemented, they have a good chance of succeeding.

    Higher ed is remarkably resistant to change. But Gillard’s idea might be the beginning of the introduction of good ideas into education policy. And once they are there, the pragmatism of most Australians and especially the political class will likely allow them to keep succeeding.

    The only problem is that you and I might have retired by the time their beneficial effects are fully felt!

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