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October 04th 2014 print

Paul Oslington

Advanced Degrees in Condescension

We're so much better than those jumped-up, Johnny-come-lately tertiary institutions, say the likes of Australian Catholic University's Greg Craven. A boast worse than hollow, it is a view at odds with both fact and the tertiary sector's future

phariseeAustralian Catholic University Vice-Chancellor Greg Craven has been hitting the airwaves and opinion pages lately to push the view that his and other similar institutions should be spared competition from private higher education providers.  When it was clear that the battle was lost to maintain universities’ monopoly on government funding, the tactics changed to nobbling the competition by funding them at a lower rate than universities.

The arguments for exclusion or nobbling are variable but boil down to private colleges not undertaking research or community engagement, and offering a cheap and low quality education to students who should not be in higher education anyway. As Professor Craven put it recently we should not be funding students at “Ma and Pa Kettle’s Business Academy”.  The shadow minister for higher education unions Kim Carr said we should not be funding “Bumcrack College” and their like.

Let’s look at the evidence, specifically comparing the Faculty of Business at Pa Craven’s institution with an example of a college to which he is referring – the Faculty of Business I lead at the private, not-for-profit Alphacrucis College in Sydney.  This is the College of the Pentecostal movement in Australia (including churches like Hillsong, but many less well known but similarly vibrant churches) which has been preparing students for ministry for over sixty years.   We are currently moving towards university accreditation (hence the recent name change from Southern Cross College) with the addition of Faculties of Education and Business.  There are over 500 students undertaking TEQSA accredited Bachelor, Masters and Doctoral degrees, who currently receive no government subsidies for their education, though they do have access to the student loans scheme. The college itself receives no government subsidies for teaching or research.

First consider entry scores – the minimum ATAR for domestic students to enter an undergraduate business degree program.  Alphacrucis minimum ATAR is 65, while at ACU there are different cut-offs for different program on different campuses – all well below our cut-off and ranging down to 43.  This does not consider the bonus points the university offers which further reduce their effective cut-offs.  Nor does it consider entry for overseas students – a very dirty business at many bottom end universities, involving free laptops for students and splitting fees with foreign-student recruitment and migration agencies.  Minimum entry scores are of course an imperfect indicator of the quality of a degree program, so let’s look at what happens when they turn up to commence their studies.

At ACU, business students will be herded into large lecture theatres and shown PowerPoint slides provided by a textbook publisher — and word spreads pretty fast that study is optional, given the policy that no more than 10% of students can fail a unit, and leaders of the Business Faculty stating that student failures will be an academic staff performance evaluation matter.  Pity the poor sessional staff, who know that failing students means no contract next semester, and who have to contend with students abusing them because they do not release the exam beforehand like their other teachers, and debauch assessment in other ways.  By contrast at Alphacrucis students are taught in small groups, with serious study expectations, excellent pastoral care, and none of the assessment nonsense that goes on in lower-end university business faculties.

We could consider staff qualifications.  All Alphacrucis, Business teaching staff have doctorates from either Australian G08 universities or top tier US universities.  It is difficult to obtain precise information for ACU Business, as the staff list was taken down last year when the inaugural Dean and several of her senior hires were removed from their positions.  Web searches suggest that no more than 60% of ACU Business staff are so qualified.

Consider commonly used indicators of research quality include books published with leading presses, Australian Research Council rankings of journals, per the Excellence of Research in Australia (ERA) 2010 list, and record of winning Australian Research Council or other similar overseas competitive research grants.  Alphacrucis staff have books published in recent years or have under contract with Routledge, Oxford and Harvard University presses, have published on average more than five A/A* publications each, and have won ARC, as well as similar and highly competitive, research grants.

What do those ARC grants buy? Quadrant‘s Philippa Martyr reports….

Data for staff teaching in the ACU Business programs is difficult to obtain, but I have not been able to identify a book with a publisher of similar stature, or in fact any A/A* publications in recent years, nor do any ACU Business teaching staff appear to have won a competitive ARC or similar research grant.  This is even though the universities have fought hard to keep private higher education institutions, like Alphacrucis, from being eligible to apply for ARC grants – their staff must arrange an honorary position at a university to apply, work for free for the university though their salary is being paid by the private institution, and then see all the credit and government funding flow to the university.

Measures of community engagement are even more difficult to obtain, but I doubt that any measure could be constructed that would show ACU Business to be more engaged with its community than Alphacrucis: speaking, consulting, running and teaching short courses, voluntary service with community organisations.

Ma and Pa Kettle’s Business Academy? Bumcrack College?  Which institutions should be able to call themselves universities?  No doubt some private providers business programs are just as shonky as those at bottom-end universities.  Let the regulators and public make their own judgements based on information rather than listening to more of this self-interested slander.

If substantial numbers of students are currently studying at colleges like Alphacrucis despite the financial disadvantages that flow from the current discriminatory government subsidies to universities, imagine what it will be like when there is a level playing field.  No wonder Pa Craven and Comrade Carr are worried.  No monopolist ever likes real competition.  Their desperate and offensive rhetoric shows just how much reform of higher education funding is needed.

Paul Oslington is Dean of Business at Alphacrucis College