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A response to Gittins on higher education in Australia

TJ Ryan Foundation Board chairman, Roger Scott, writes in the ‘Pearls & Irritations’ blog (24.1.18) the first of three commentaries about Australia’s higher education sector, in response to an article in the Fairfax press by economic journalist, Ross Gittins, decrying the state of our universities.

‘What is there to say about Gittins’ comments, I was asked by John Menadue.  How valid are his general contentions and how valid are his criticisms?   Like the curate’s egg (and the university system as a whole) it is good in parts but Gittins is unfair in some of his generalisations.

‘Ross Gittins is an influential economist and analyst of public policy, so I propose in best academic traditions to subject his article to close textual analysis – taking his words in non-random order within the context of his overall proposition. Who knows? My comments might even turn from a Menadue invitation into a conference paper worth credit points for future promotion and research funding and even publication after peer review – only I’m so geriatric as to be beyond these fleshpots of temptation. And I would want to start by adding a couple of other words to Gittins, namely ‘the’ and ‘staff’.

‘George Orwell reflected on the evolving inequality between pigs and other farm animals. Within the university system, differences appear as several shades of inequality. Declaring personal interests as is required for such heights of academe, I must also identify myself as one of those oddballs Gittins sees as constituting ‘a minority of academics who take pride in lecturing well’. As mentioned in earlier Menadue pieces, I bear the stigmata from a now defunct set of institutions called Colleges of Advanced Education. These CAEs and the state-owned variety of TAFE institutions have left a legacy within the ‘lower ranks of real universities’ where vocational preparation is taken very seriously and the output in terms of students’ sense of engagement rates very highly. So ‘our unis’ are not all the same, although they aspire to be treated equally. As Glyn Davis has pointed out in The Australian Idea of a University [Melbourne University Press, 2017] the pressure of the Unified National System is constantly towards meeting a uniform set of performance criteria which are seen as emblematic of ‘real universities’. Thus his recent book is about ‘the’ singular Australian idea of a university.’

Gittins on universities, Part 2: ‘Home and Away’

Roger Scott’s response to Ross Gittins continues in the ‘Pearls & Irritations’ blog (29.1.18):

‘Enter the ‘money-grubbers’ in Gittens’ headline, seemingly likening VCs and their ilk to the biblical money-changers, not outside but inside (and managing) the temples of higher learning. The focus has now firmly been placed by Education Minister Simon Birmingham on the overly high salaries paid to VCs compared to their peers in Britain and Canada.

‘Two lines of defence have been offered on behalf of the VCs near the top of the financial tree, valued four times more than their Oxford counterpart. One related to size, contrasting Bristol’s 17,000 students with the University of Queensland (UQ) figure of 52,000; the other pleaded on behalf of the Australian Catholic University by explaining its apparent profligacy in terms of the complexity of managing multiple campuses in different jurisdictions. Perhaps, in negotiating their personal packages with Councils or Senates drawn from high-fliers in the business world, VCs might have identified their role as academic high-fliers deserving similar remunerations.’

Postscript on Australian universities: ‘are we near the Kodak moment’? Part 3

Roger Scott’s response to Ross Gittins concludes in the ‘Pearls & Irritations’ blog (31.1.18):

‘In March 2017, under a headline ‘Digital disruption lowers costs of pricy masters degrees’ the Australian Financial Review reported:

A round of price-cutting has broken out in the market for high-priced masters degrees with four Australian universities offering students a pathway to complete part of their degree online at a steep discount. [Tim Dodd, AFR 18 March 2017]

‘Are we near the ‘Kodak moment’ for Australian universities?

‘The four universities (University of Queensland, ANU, Adelaide and Curtin) are among 22 around the world – including MIT and Columbia – that are using edX to offer a low price route to a masters degree via a US-based ‘Massive Open Online Course’ (MOOC) which gives them a new credential called a MicroMasters that provides the equivalent of at least a 20% discount overall on costs. Suddenly universities have been thrust into a much larger technological market-place with a brand which must look over-priced.’

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