Whingeing academics

According to a report in this morning’s Age, a National Tertiary Education Union survey of university staff presents ‘a bleak picture of education quality and morale.’

The trouble with these surveys is that academics are always complaining, so it is difficult to know whether this is ‘whingeing as normal’ or whether there is anything unusual going on. It is always worth checking academic impressions against what evidence we possess.

The Age reports that more than half of academics do not believe that their university offers a better education than five years ago. Yet that is not the perception of students. The Course Experience Questionnaire continues to record improvements in satisfaction with teaching, and indeed most aspects of university life are showing long-term increases in satisfaction. The one clear exception is the ‘appropriate assessment’ scale, which is designed to explore whether ‘assessment promoted deeper forms of learning’. The questions in this scale are to do with whether more than a good memory is needed to do well.

An anonymous academic claims that

“There has been a continuous decline in the quality of teaching due to management demands to pass students — particularly full fee-paying students … Quality is put second, money is put first.”

This seems to be a non sequitur; presumably to pass full-fee students you need either better teaching (a possibility, given the above results) or lower assessment standards. But the statistics on pass rates (in the appendices) are very stable. Commencing international students, almost of all of whom are full-fee, consistently fail about 18% of the subjects they attempt. Local commencing students, almost all of whom are loss-making and government-subsidised, do a little better, failing about 15% of the subjects they attempt.

Though there is no evidence that soft-marking of fee-paying students is widespread or that there is any trend in their performance, this is partly because quality control in the sector is so weak and fragmented that nothing can be confidently said on this subject.

The Age report also suggests some contradictory views among academics. They complain both that their institution is more focused on gaining an income from fee-paying students than on getting results for students, and that universities are moving to sack staff because they have not raised enough revenue. It’s the great delusion that there are no trade-offs to be made.

I think it is reasonable to claim that, with price control keeping income artificially low, universities are ‘under-funded’. But the NTEU itself must take part of the blame for the higher education policy fiasco. To this day, they oppose the fee deregulation that could improve the quality of Australian higher education, including the working lives of their members.

37 thoughts on “Whingeing academics

  1. Last year UNSW cut its teaching semester from 14 to 12 weeks. Every maths course that I personally know anything about has suffered a corresponding cut of about 15% of content. Now maths is a hierarchical subject where new learning is very dependent on previous learning, so this 15% cut compounds over the years, and you end up with graduates who have seen something like 40% less maths than under the previous system. So if there are people out there who think that the quality of education offered by our universities is declining, I would say that they have very good grounds for thinking so, at least in some cases. I also think that student surveys suffer from a certain degree of myopia, as it is often not until years later that you actually appreciate the value of what you have been taught.


  2. A big problem with the CEQ is that it appears very healthily correlated with employment levels. Thus the gains you saw over recent years may simply be related to people’s expectations of future (or often current) employment. My bet is that when unemployment goes up, CEQ scores will go down in tandem with it. This suggests that some of the gains and losses in the CEQ having nothing to do with teaching standards or other university things at all. The other problem with the CEQ is that it is not validated against any actual performance measures. Until these turn up, it’s very hard to determine how much faith one should put in the CEQ and whether one should use it as evidence of anything at all.
    This problem reminds me of a rather more conceptually simple one for primary schools — it’s easy to make primary school kids happy — all you need to do is give them lollies. Why not survey primary school kids too?


  3. Cathy – Student surveys don’t ask much about the adequacy of course content. I expect it would be hard to frame a question that gave meaningful answers.

    I’m waiting for Conrad to offer us his usual critique of student surveys, but for all their limitations they are a useful check on anecdotal evidence, and a sign that the effort universities have put into improving the student experience are paying off.

    All other things being equal, a shorter semester does look like a backwards step.


  4. Conrad – Ha! I wrote my comment before your comment appeared, but I knew what was coming.

    It is hard to see why questions about whether academics are good at explaining things or the library services were accessible would correlate with unemployment. Also, vocational courses tend to get lower scores than generalist courses, though the former almost always have better employment outcomes.

    The major ‘bias’ in the CEQ is that it is of completing students, as the most dissatisfied students have probably dropped out.

    And it is worth noting that in absolute terms many of the results are not very good – the trend is positive, but from a low base. As a colleague of mine has commented, most commercial enterprises would be horrified with consumer satisfaction results like those that appear in the CEQ.


  5. “The Age reports that more than half of academics do not believe that their university offers a better education than five years ago. Yet that is not the perception of students.”

    How would the students know? They weren’t there 5 years ago.


  6. “How would the students know? They weren’t there 5 years ago.”

    No, but other students were, who rated their experience more negatively than recent students.

    Survey questions that ask people to compare over time tend to get very unreliable results. As part of its normal adjustment process to keep us at a stable and reasonably positive emotional state, the brain tends to downplay past negative feelings, whereas current negatives are prominent in our minds, as we need to fix them. This is why comparing actual reactions recorded in the past with reactions recorded now is necessary.


  7. “It is hard to see why questions about whether academics are good at explaining things or the library services were accessible would correlate with unemployment”

    I can’t find the graph now, but the overall increase on the CEQ is correlated very well with unemployment levels of graduates (although of course, that’s not causation). We’ll know the answer to this in a year or two I imagine! My bet is that students simply give lower marks to everything if they don’t get good outcomes (i.e., there is a general factor as well as specific components), which is why some of the different questions in the CEQ that shouldn’t be correlated are correlated. So I could ask you why “library services” are correlated with “academics explaining things”, which they are (an example from the real data, for example, shows that “perception of social experience when learning” correlates at around .6 with “generic skills”).


  8. Conrad – Though the different scales are moving at different rates, and the decline of the appropriate assessment scale does not fit with the theory. I would not be surprised if overall satisfaction showed some link to employment, but would be surprised if the others did. As you say, we are about to test the theory.


  9. I appreciate that there has been a creeping process of micro management from Canberra that has made life more difficult for academics in some ways since the Dawkins reforms, however to suggest that this process could account for measurable deterioration in the quality of education over the last five years is a bit much!
    Apart from cases like the 15% reduction in content, if there has been any deterioration it is almost certainly the fault of the academics themselves.
    How many of them can look you in the eye and say they have been doing all the things that diligent academics and teachers should be doing – keeping up with the literature in their field, re-reading the classics, fine tuning their lectures and cognate reading lists to take account of recent advances and also their evolving understanding of the fundamental problems and issues in the discipline and the way these relate to the concerns of related fields. And so on. Or is that too much to expect?
    How many of them claim that they have a vocation, not just a job?
    How many are prepared to engage in the public debate about the meaning and purpose of higher education?


  10. “if there has been any deterioration it is almost certainly the fault of the academics themselves”

    That’s basically untrue Rafe. Declines have come for many reasons – most of which are completely out of control of the individual academic. For example, there is less funding per student (funding, for example, went up 2% this year, but inflation 5%), often extremely poor management from above (not just the government), funding going to more non-student sources (e.g., marketing in one guise or another, such as the desire most VCs have to buy large bits of expensive and essentially useless equipment), over-reliance on student happiness measures with poor validity leading to dumbed-down courses, lower expectations from students coming in etc.

    Personally, the fact that being an academic is getting to be a fairly poor job is obvious from people doing PhDs (which have reached almost zero in many areas), that the average age of the workforce is now over 50 now, and the fact that most young people that are good now want to work overseas (I’d love to see what percentage of the top, say, 20% of scientists in Australia move to overseas). So the overall aptitude of the workforce is in decline also. So if you think there are bad academics out there (no doubt there are), then you need to specify how you would replace them with better ones.
    Given these things, I think you are attributing the decline on the wrong sources. It reminds me of the people that blame teachers and nurses for all of the problems in schools and hospitals, when in reality, anything that causes longer term declines has essentially nothing to do with anyone at the individual level.


  11. How many of them claim that they have a vocation, not just a job?

    One of the problems in academia is that too many claim to have a vocation, and not just a job. This makes it very difficult to direct behaviour as a academics each believe that they individually understand and control the education outcomes for students. Where this becomes problematic is when Heads of School or program coordinators can’t get individual academics to cooperate in delivering a stream of subjects. It also becomes problematic is accessment tasks. So everybody is off on a frolic of their own.

    I’m inclined to agree with Rafe’s sentiment though. I often wonder when academics tell me that standards in their own subject has fallen ‘and who’s fault is that?’. Conrad is quite right that senior management waste a lot of money on trivia etc. But overall I can’t see how that impacts the classroom. Students now have better facilities than before, (certainly the electronic library is much, much better than the old hard copy libraries) and with an aging teaching population actually have the same teachers as students did twenty years ago. Academics still have four to five months clear of teaching over the year.


  12. Conrad, I know about the things that you mentioned but my point concerns the quality of education that teachers deliver in lectures, reading lists, marking essays and face to face contact in tutorials and other ways.
    I also appreciate that the larger educataional experience goes on in other ways that have declined steadily over some decades, as noted by Greg Sheridan on the back page of The Australian review last weekend, still that is not a “last five years” thing.
    My point is that the quality of the content in lectures, reading lists and tutorials should improve incrimentally from year to year as teachers do the things that I listed. Keeping up with the literature in their field, re-reading the classics, fine tuning their lectures and reading lists to take account of recent advances and also their evolving understanding…


  13. Rafe,

    teaching is a job, not some mythical altruistic thing people do for the benefit of the greater other. Improving the quality of things like lectures is hard and takes a lot of time, and keeping up to date in all areas for many people is almost impossible because their workloads are too high and most universities spend essentially nothing on staff development. In addition, so little time is allocated to staff for things like undergraduate teaching (which is not surprising, since it makes very little money), of course the things you are talking about are a long distant consideration compared to many other things — that’s basically the implicit policy of many universities (I’ve been in numerous meetings where staff have basically been told that they need to make time for research or money making and that they need to think about where where the “best” place to make time is). This suggests to me that if individuals don’t do it, it generally isn’t in in conflict with what their universities want (which is generally to make money, which is not what undergraduate teaching does), so the fault doesn’t lie with the individual at all. It’s therefore no surprise that there are courses which are way out of date (which incidentally may well score highly on satisfaction surveys).


  14. Conrad, I don’t know where you are getting your ideas but how hard is it for fulltime, career academics to keep up to date in their areas of special competence and closely related topics?
    The system has changed a great deal over some decades but there has been no real debate about what has happened and what should or might happen next. If academics are doing it tough now, it is their own fault for being so lazy and irresponsible about debating the issues inside and outside the academies. You/they have the opportunity for a vocation, not just a job but you give the impression that you/they have blown it.
    It is not just about money, it is about professionalism and responsibility.


  15. Rafe,

    excluding at the really big universities, most people teach in multiple areas (and the situation becomes even worse supervising theses, where some students may do something no-one knows about), so the situation is really not as simple as you think. This is further complicated by teaching post-graduate stuff, which makes money and may be much more specialized and in depth, or when you have to teach something you know little about because someone else left without replacement — courses can’t just be stopped for a year or two simply because your department happens to have no specialist. This is yet further complicated because many staff are ancient and haven’t learnt anything new for decades, and some new staff simply don’t know as much as you would want to begin with.

    “If academics are doing it tough now, it is their own fault for being so lazy and irresponsible about debating the issues inside and outside the academies.”

    I have no idea why you blame academics (especially ones that are just entering the system, incidentally, who have to put up with the mess). There must be 10,000 public articles and submissions from academics about the future of universities. There isn’t the slightest shortage. The reason things are bad now in Australia at least (many other countries have essentially the same problem) is basically because of silly government legislation that has forced staff/student ratios up to the highest in the OECD, which is a level which basically puts you into the McEducation category whether you like it or not. Basically, the public want cheap degrees and want to force universities to offer them, and the politicians oblige with poor legislation that does this. So it’s cheap or cheaper for your undergraduate degree, and the results are obvious. There’s lots of other crazy things I could mention legislationwise, but I won’t.

    “It is not just about money, it is about professionalism and responsibility.”

    That’s true, but it’s money first at every Australian university I’m aware of, no matter what their marketing (and those that fail end up like La Trobe, so it’s pretty clear why). If there’s a conflict (which is common), money wins.


  16. “many staff are ancient and haven’t learnt anything new for decades”
    I prepared to blame the academics because they have never made any kind of concerted and consistent case that might have gained support from the public and politicians for a better system.
    Heavens above, most of the politicians have been through uni these days, what did they learn about universities and the life of the mind as they went through?


  17. “There must be 10,000 public articles and submissions from academics about the future of universities. ‘

    And 9,999 of them call for more public funding and ignore or propose exacerbating price control on fees, entrenching the key strucutural problem.

    While academics have had a fair bit to say, it has been so misguided and incompetent that I do think that academics and the organisations that represent them – both the NTEU and AVCC – are makers of their own misery.


  18. Yes, on the topic of academics and the case for uni education, I meant that they did not explain to the public and the politicians what should be done (by themselves) to justify their existence by improving the quality of education if they did get the money they wanted.
    Just to give a concrete example. All-well educated graduates in the social sciences should have a working knowlege of the main lines of Hayek’s ideas, in the way that we expect natural scientists to have some understanding of biological evolution and the transition from Ptolemy through Newton to Einstein. If that was happening then Kevin Rudd would have been the butt of gales of mirth or stunned disbelief when he gave his talk on Hayek.
    How much more money would be required to tempt the social scientists to bring their courses up to date on Hayek?


  19. Andrew,

    the problem with the NTEU is that may as well be called the Labor Left, so I doubt they speak for most academics, and nor does the AVCC — they don’t even listen to many, including those that might be able to actually help them. There are heaps of other submissions (just look at the ones on the DEST for the various government papers), but in the end no-one takes notice of things that the public doesn’t want (or at least are too divergent with public opinion) — so unless the public happen to love education a bit more and anti-intellectualism a bit less, it’s the public that are the end makers of university (and hence, in the long term, their own) misery. So to me, the problem isn’t really with the NTEU or the AVCC at all, it’s a cultural problem in that most Australians are too cheap to pay for their own education and are also so authoritarian and jealous that they don’t want to let other people pay for theirs either. Thus you have a market failure which is then enforced by the mindless majority. This is of course why it seems rather unlikely that you’ll ever see the model that you dream of (it’s obviously un-Australian). Of course if you are stuck in this position as a VC, and are willing to admit this, then your options are restricted to either asking for money from the government, or cutting back anything that happens to cost money (like undergraduate education), so it’s no surprise that these two things happen.


  20. Conrad – I agree that public opinon does not support higher fees, but on the other hand HECS was introduced (1989) and increased twice (1997, 2005) without much political backlash. A more positive contribution from higher education interest groups would have helped change the political calculation politicians make. In 1999 a Minister proposing fee deregulation was hammered by the very people he was trying to help. With behaviour like that, universities can count themselves very lucky that the Coalition did revisit the issue for 2005, rather than letting universities endure on-going cuts.


  21. it’s a cultural problem in that most Australians are too cheap to pay for their own education and are also so authoritarian and jealous that they don’t want to let other people pay for theirs either.

    Magnificent!! That should be up in lights.


  22. And 9,999 of them call for more public funding and ignore or propose exacerbating price control on fees, entrenching the key strucutural problem.

    ahem, 9,998.


  23. Conrad, can you offer a contribution in reply to my comment 18, do you have any suggestions to offer about funding or other strategies that might be employed to get the social scientists of Australia up to speed on Hayek’s ideas? Or do you deny that there is a problem?


  24. Rafe,

    I tend to think any form of non-extreme bias is not a particular problem at the undergraduate level, since most of what is getting taught these days is really more related to basic skills, rather than an in-depth analysis of various theories or topics — there’s only so much one can cover in 3 years. If a few things are left out, well, bad luck. If students want to do in depth stuff on some particular idea, no-one is going to stop them in their honours year, and they are also likely to be smart enough to actually deal with it by then (and some 4th years even read more than just their textbooks). If you really want to see more stuff about Hayek and Austrian Economics, then the main way would be to get some really high flying academic to work in Australia at one of the big universities, who would attract lots of students. These students would then get employed in universities and those sorts of ideas would spread over time — this seems to be the most common way areas of research and hence teaching get built up in Australian universities over the long term, at least in the social sciences (Of course, thanks to the rather high level of nepotism and corruption, I imagine that given the current state of things, such a person and their students would face an uphill battle against all the people that wouldn’t want to see or hear about those ideas).

    I also think your problem is that you want people to teach and learn what you happen to think is the best stuff. Not surprisingly, this isn’t well correlated with most sociology departments, which, in my somewhat limited experience (I’ve only worked in IT, linguistics, and psych — although of course you bump into many of them), tend to be left leaning and into things that make me itchy (and probably you too — I imagine it is much better in economics — but then you are going to be fighting with a different crowd).
    My personal belief is that much more important things get left out which are not so political, like stuff to do with the history of science (e.g., model testing by Popper). Where I work, this is taught in no courses, and in sociology, they only ever learn qualitative analysis. As far as I can tell, this basically teaches people to write qualitative, untestable, ungeneralizable, and unfalsifiable drivel (that club Troppo paper on rape that caused all the comments a while ago being a good example — this type of drivel is commonly presented in Masters theses where I work). I imagine, for example, the majority of undergraduates (and quite possibly the majority of postgraduates also) don’t even realize that models predict things and can be tested, and nor would they be able to tell you why one would collect data which either helps confirm or falsify a model and what the difference between these two types of data might be. Given all these things, I tend to think Hayek can take a back seat.


  25. Conrad, what would you think of a situation in the physical and biological sciences or engineering and architecture where major advances like the double helix (or technological advances like reinforced concrete) were not taught in basic courses for 50 or 100 years? That is the situation in the social sciences, law, politics and economics where Hayek’s ideas are not in basic courses.

    Come to think of it, the current chaos in international finance can be seen as a result of that situation.


  26. I’ll just make the observation that academics can always move out of the sector and do something different – people do it outside academia all the time.


  27. John
    Fortunately, I don’t work at UNSW. I will probably be starting a masters there next year, though. I don’t really find the thought of working in any part of the Australian tertiary education sector terribly appealing, actually.


  28. Hi Cathy,

    It was coursework, but my problem wasn`t with the lecturers or the course, it was with the university as a whole. The overwhelming impression that I got was that the university doesn`t care about its students. The facilities (computer, library, etc) were inadequate, and the reduction of the semester to twelve weeks really reduces the amount that can be learnt. These are all the result of conscious decisions by university management, and real proof of what Andrew has been saying now for yonks.

    For instance, my maths lecture was held on a Friday. Take out Good Friday and Anzac Day, and that left us with ten classes, which couldn`t be made up at other times.

    I won`t be completing my masters course there next year.


  29. Jeremy,
    Yeah, the new 12 week semester is diabolical. I graduated from NSW as a maths teacher last year, but I don’t feel that I can recommend the uni to any of my students anymore. I certainly don’t think it is a good uni for undergraduates.
    I’ll be doing a research masters there in applied maths next year, and since I have found a good supervisor, I am hoping it will be OK. (The whole idea of doing a research rather than a coursework masters is to spend as little time there as possible.)


  30. Cathy/Jeremy

    The 12 week semester is an outrage and an insult to all students. Last year it was 14 weeks. Cathy’s point about the substantial reduction in what a maths graduate will know is spot on, but spare of thought for those in Arts. UNSW has this bizzare no exams policy in Arts, except the occasional “in class” 50 minute test during the last week of formal lectures. At least in Maths, new material is taught right up to the end of Week 12. But now, they have even slashed stu-vac to only TWO days (plus the weekend). THis is really taking the piss.

    The reason for this disaster can be summed up in two words: Fred HIlmer (aka destroyer of Fairfax)


  31. “The 12 week semester is an outrage and an insult to all students.”

    Harvard has 12 week semesters


    as do all the other great US universities.

    You people really do need to HTFU, and stop expecting to get spoon fed. You’re not in kindy any more.


  32. Andrew – that`s exactly what I`ve done. The chequebook has snapped shut.

    John – I think you`re right on the money.

    Cathy – a maths teacher – I respect you! I too decided to do as much work at home as possible, because the university environment was so depressing and was not conducive to study.

    Spiros – OK! Mountain training, push-ups at dawn, picking fights with gorillas in pubs! That`ll solve the problems in higher education. Andrew, are you listening??


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