The Universities

Why Our Universities Are Failing

failing unisNot long after my family and I left New Zealand and arrived here for me to work at one of Australia’s longer-established university law schools I realised that something was amiss in higher education in this country—worse than anywhere else I had worked or visited or taken a sabbatical, which included an Ivy League university law school and others in the USA and in Canada, the UK, New Zealand and Hong Kong.

I remember discovering how centralised decision-making was at law schools here. Virtually every important decision was made outside the law school itself.

I remember how jarring it was to find out that some university bureaucracy dictated all sorts of micro-managing things, including the requirement to use “criteria-based marking”, and yet no one, anywhere, could or would defend such gobbledegook on a theoretical or practical basis, or respond when you pointed out that every great law school in the world rejected such nonsense.

I remember how bizarre it was to be told that the law school would only hire those with a PhD, as though this mattered much in law and even though the Harvards and Oxfords of the world had no such rule.

I remember the shock I felt when it became clear that Australian universities treated the getting of a research grant, and especially a government or Australian Research Council one, not as an input that might possibly lead to some worthy or notable output but as an output in and of itself, and perhaps the most important output. It was like deciding which car manufacturer was the best one based on how much money it got from the government.

In this bizarre state of affairs, imagine two academics, Dr X and Dr Y. Dr X produces all sorts of top-notch research that is published in all sorts of top journals and she produces all of them without a cent from the ARC or anyone else in the form of grants (grants that take huge amounts of time and resources to apply for, let me remind you). Dr Y produces exactly the same published research on the same topics, in the same field, in the same numbers and in the same journals. But Dr Y can only produce his publications after first applying for grants from the ARC.

The whole Australian system, and especially the whole university bureaucracy, will treat Dr Y as far superior to Dr X. Indeed Dr X (who costs taxpayers not a cent in grant-applying time and resources) may find it almost impossible to win promotion, however stellar her publication record. She would be punished by her university for not getting the grants, for not spending all sorts of time and effort just to try to win money from grant-givers (and for not bringing grant money into the university—which takes a hefty cut of every successful grant—to keep employed the army of grant advisers and bureaucrats who now inhabit all Australian universities). In fact, even if Dr Y has a slightly worse research publication record he will be treated as more worthy and promoted over Dr X. We have this state of affairs in our universities because consecutive Australian governments (including John Howard’s) have let the university bureaucracies lose touch with what I would describe as “sanity”. (And to be fair, the Australian university bureaucracies are in part, but only in part, the result of the huge and wasteful reporting and bureaucratic regimes imposed on them by the government.)

I remember also thinking that most of the higher echelons of Australian university administration that I saw, from vice-chancellors on down, were peopled by what could be described, perhaps a tad unkindly in a few cases, as failed academics.

I had the weird sense that the law school I had come to, indeed all the law schools in the country and all the other parts of the universities, existed in some parallel universe. Elsewhere, outside the universities, people cared about taxpayer money, believed that at least a smidgen of collegial decision-making generally produced good consequences, could see the difference between judging people based on what they wrote and produced versus one that judged them based largely on winning as many grants as possible.

I even remember recounting these things to my wife, who did not believe me. It was just too far-fetched to be true, she thought.

So I wrote about it here and there, not least for Quadrant, and then I pretty much forgot about it. That’s the problem. As with anything, I suppose, one just gets used to the bizarre and insanely bureaucratic practices. I recall having a coffee a few years back with the then shadow higher-education minister and being left with the feeling that none of this overly bothered him.

Of course, having a named chair and some research behind me meant that I could to a sufficient extent just ignore or refuse to follow the more idiotic demands from the bureaucracy, which made getting along easier. But I was aware that others just starting out in Australian academic life or needing promotion could not ignore the idiocies.

But this past year I have been away on sabbatical in North America and that time abroad has reminded me of what I see as some of the failings of Australian universities, areas where they compare unfavourably to their cousins in Canada, the USA, the UK and New Zealand. In the rest of this article, therefore, I want to return to the larger theme of offering up criticisms of Australian universities, though perhaps in a more thematic way. And I will do so in part because it is my view that as bad as things were on my arrival into the world of Australian universities back in early 2005, they are worse today.

Lack of competition

In Canada, the USA, the UK and even in New Zealand, many parents send their kids away to university for their first degree. That means, for instance, that the University of Toronto competes with Queen’s University (both very good, by the way) to get the best students on offer. Parents in British Columbia regularly send their kids thousands of miles away across the country to go to university. This is normal. Not everyone opts to do it, but lots do. And it keeps universities on their toes. If you believe that competition generally engenders better outcomes and consequences—better for the young undergraduates and better for the universities who are forced to compete and hence adapt and be flexible and strive to improve—then you will see this as a good thing.

Attending university away from home is also standard practice in the USA, where no one assumes that his or her high-school-finishing child will just stay in the same city and commute each day to the home town university. This practice means competition to get the best students.

And the same is true in the UK. It is not just Oxford residents who send their kids to Oxford University—or the few people who live in St Andrews in Scotland who send their bairns to that great university. Again, there is competition.

Even in New Zealand, where I lived and worked for eleven years, there is intense competition to attract the best high school students away from their home towns. That country’s oldest university (and I would say its best university, though I did work there for those eleven years so I may not be the best judge)—Otago University in Dunedin—draws a large percentage of its students from Auckland, some thousand kilometres away. There is no fear of going away from home and learning not just your chosen academic discipline but a fair bit about independence and life in general.

This is all taken for granted in the rest of the Anglo-American world. Australia is a notable exception. There is next to no tradition or culture of sending one’s kids away to university (those from the rural areas being the exception). Sydney University does not compete with Melbourne University or the University of Queensland for the country’s best high school students. Moving interstate to go to university happens in only trifling numbers.

To the extent that Australian universities compete at all, it is really only with the other universities in their own city. So within each city there will be an implicit league table of that city’s universities, and a close correlation between how a student did at school and which university (in his or her home town) that student opts to attend. This is all second-rate stuff in terms of competition. I will be blunt. Sydney University does not need to do anything at all, it need make no changes or improvements or adaptations whatsoever, to be seen as superior to UTS or Australian Catholic University or, in most cases, even UNSW. It is seen as being top of the pecking order in Sydney, and for most things it is. When it isn’t, because UNSW is, it is still second. And the other Sydney universities are seen as far behind because, well, they are.

The same goes for Melbourne University. There too there is at least one other Group of Eight university, namely Monash. So there is some competition, in the attenuated sense that two of the eight elite Australian universities are competing. But elsewhere in Australia in the big cities there is not even that much competition. No one doubts what the best university is in Perth, or in Adelaide, or in Brisbane. There may well exist social rules of politeness that discourage people from saying so out loud. But everyone knows.

In this sense, Australia and its universities are at a disadvantage. Imagine what would happen if parents were as likely to send their kids to Melbourne University as to Sydney University or the University of Queensland or Australian National University, and the deciding factors came down to what the universities had to offer, say in terms of class sizes or contact with professors or the “undergraduate experience”.

So Australian universities can sell short the undergraduate students, the ones studying for their first (and for most of them their only) degree. They can stuff 300 or 400 or more students into a first-year law course, even at one of the old established Group of Eight universities, and they can get away with it. But when there is that sort of Canadian or US or New Zealand or UK-style competition between universities then there is far less need (or more accurately, supposed need) for a host of government and university and bureaucracy mandated rules, and countless “teacher-focused” gurus spouting outright idiocies to try to improve the experience of undergraduate students. Competition among the best universities, and at all the levels below that, does a much better job on that front than the Australian command-and-control approach.

It is perhaps unfair that I start with this problem, because there is little prospect of fixing it. When I try to point out the advantages of sending one’s kids away to university here in Australia I am generally met with blank stares of incredulity. Quite a few people even go on about the extra cost of sending one’s kids away. But that latter point is largely wrong-headed. Take the cost of being in residence for a year, let’s call that $12,000 a year. Now from that take away the costs of commuting back and forth each day to university (for a year) and also the cost of food, as you will have to pay these when your kids stay at home and commute to classes. Some parents even throw in a car. Add it up and there’s really not much in it. And of course in most residence universities abroad, ones like Otago (where I would recommend that all Australians send their kids for a first degree) or Queen’s and the myriad US and UK universities, once you are there everything is within walking distance. There are no transportation costs.

There would even be one ancillary benefit on an issue that few Australian university bureaucrats are prepared to talk about. And that is the stunningly high percentage of Australian undergraduates who have a job while attending university. This is widely seen as a good thing by parents and the students themselves, and sotto voce, by university administrators too (who do everything they can in the way of trying to force lectures to be recorded and more to make working easier for students).

But of course it is a bad idea, for any course or lecturer or program that is any good at all. In Canadian law schools (and US ones, and UK ones) you are expected to be working on your degree full-time. You are expected to do lots of reading. You are expected to think. You are expected to pursue things on your own. You are not expected to schedule classes all on two days of the week so you can work the other three. Or tell your professor that you can’t do something because it conflicts with work. Or be so tired that you do as little reading as you can get away with.

Yet that is now standard practice in Australia. I can still, just, get away with refusing to record any of my lectures and so insist that students come (or not, since as adults it is up to them, but if not they are on their own). But the university administration detests that position and is making it harder and harder to take. As I came to Australia already with a chair I can ignore the students who get infuriated about this practice of mine in their course evaluations. But no junior academic wanting to be promoted can do so. It is no exaggeration to say that the incentives are slanted heavily in favour of caving in, of spoon-feeding students, of recording all lectures for viewing from home (with much reduced class attendance as a result)—anything to facilitate the job commitment of the supposedly full-time undergraduate.

The flip-side of this situation is that the demands on students (even at our Group of Eight universities) are noticeably below what they are in good Canadian and UK and US universities. As for a serious Ivy League or Oxbridge undergraduate education, well, we are not in the same league as those institutions because we demand so little of our students.

So that lack of competition is a first failing, and the hardest of all to fix.

Too much bureaucracy

I suspect a fair few readers will be inclined to think that I am exaggerating in this next section, especially those who graduated from an Australian university, say, two decades or more ago. So let me assure you that I am not.

My experience of law schools in quite a number of the sorts of jurisdictions that Australia normally likes to compare itself to is that we here have the most bureaucracy, and by a goodly amount. Let me start at the top of the university structure and work my way down.

First off, we pay our vice-chancellors a lot of money here. There have been seven-figure salaries. Of the universities I have worked at and visited, the Australian ones pay their people the most. Our vice-chancellors make three times what the Prime Minister makes; even deputy vice-chancellors make more than twice as much. And virtually no professors actually in the class room make as much as whole swathes of mid-level university bureaucrats.

Think about the incentive signal that sends out. And realise that this all goes hand-in-hand with a pervasive managerialist culture that is heavy-handed, pretends that it is part of some market when it really isn’t, and which is so used to command-and-control operating procedures that I personally would prefer our universities to be run by the unions. And I say that as someone who has never joined a union and who thinks that they are on balance a problem across the whole public sector.

Then there is the overwhelming extent to which decisions in Australia are made at the centre, not devolved down to the departments (on the weird assumption, I suppose, that all parts of the university are exactly the same). So in the law school you cannot decide how to treat your own doctorate students in terms of how often their progress must be assessed. There is a university-wide rule.

You cannot decide how to mark. There is a university “criterion-based marking mandate”, indefensible though it is (and ignored as much as possible).

You cannot decide whether job candidates must have a PhD, there’s another university-wide rule (and one that makes no sense for teaching law).

You cannot decide when to ask students to assess their lecturers. There is a university-wide rule that it be in every class and every tutorial, not just every year but every semester—the tedium and the way it makes the students jaundiced and the lecturers cynical be damned!

Oh, and you are not really allowed to opt out of the mania for grant-getting as the key criterion of excellence, though here there is some wiggle room, especially the higher up the hierarchy of lecturers you go.

And that’s just a taste of the overweening centralisation of the universities. Of course to some extent you might just sigh and concede that Australians, by nature, are not much inclined towards federalism and devolved decision-making in general terms. Given that our High Court has single-handedly done what it can to kill off federalism, and that both main political parties in Canberra can hardly be said to espouse (or believe in) federalism, it may seem a bit harsh to condemn the universities for doing exactly what happens politically in this country.

Of course for those of us who do think federalism produces the best long-term consequences—because the most prosperous countries in the world are almost without exception the federal ones such as Switzerland, the USA, Germany and Canada, and because such a federal system maximises the satisfying of preferences when a region can develop the systems it prefers, and because competition produces good consequences in the long term, however inefficient it may seem in the short term, not unlike capitalist market economies versus centrally planned ones—the same deficiencies appear with one-size-fits-all decision-making in Australian universities.

Of all the law schools I have worked at in my career I have never been at one that leaves less decision-making power in the hands of the law school itself than here in Australia. Top university administrators who know nothing about law end up making the most important decisions for the law school.

It is not a recipe that I think has worked (or ever will work) well. The law schools at Oxford, Harvard, Yale, Cambridge, Toronto, Chicago, Otago, and more besides, make more important decisions about how to run their law schools than we are allowed to do here in Australia—which may be why I have 400-plus students in my classes.

And back to those really big salaries we pay our top university administrators. You regularly hear how they are responsible for such huge budgets. And that is true. But what you don’t hear is that most of that budget is locked in, in terms of faculty salaries and student (and government) fees. So some hefty percentage of the overall budget takes care of itself. A numerate Year 11 student could handle it.

And why does the government impose so many reporting rules that force universities to expand their bureaucracies—including the hiring of people to aid with grant-getting? Indeed, why is so much money churned and churned through big ARC and other bureaucracies that send out expensive-to-administer and expensive-to-apply-for grants, a process that treats the time of good academics as a free good and that pays “grant helpers” a salary they could not otherwise receive.

Let me note one last problem under this heading of too much bureaucracy. Here I note the emphasis in Australia, and in Australian universities, on league tables and world and country rankings. On many of these ranking schemes Australian universities do well. But let me point out a few things about these league tables. First, they have virtually nothing to say about undergraduate degree-taking. They are not measures of where first-degree students are likely to learn the most, or encounter the best professors, or be pushed the most, or be in the smallest classes, or anything else in that vein. No, these rankings purport to measure such things as research excellence production, or the esteem in which a university is held. If they matter at all, they matter to would-be doctoral students. And anyway, almost all of the world ranking tables of universities have a systematic bias against American universities. If you were being honest you would say that the world’s top thirty or forty universities consisted of American ones throughout, with Oxford and Cambridge and maybe one or two others in their somewhere. The criteria are rigged to ensure the answers are not almost all US ones.

Certainly the top students from around the world go to the USA when they can. And so do top researchers and publishers. Yes, there are exceptions. But not many. And that is a better test of quality and excellence than the rather bogus criteria used in these bureaucratic ranking exercises.

And then there is the recent ARC-run attempt to measure the research quality of Australian universities. This process could only run because academics in Australia were encouraged (by their home universities) to be part of the system. I will confess, with regret, that I was one such academic. And to be part of it you had to sign a release saying you would provide no specific details about how this ranking exercise took place.

So I will not give specifics, though I encourage the ARC to release me from my release because in general terms (at least as regards the law-school-ranking side of this enterprise) this research quality exercise was a bad joke. I will say this. The process in which I was involved produced totally meaningless results. You might just as well have banked the $30 million or whatever it was to run the thing and just ranked universities by how old they are. That would correlate pretty well with the results. There was no credible assessment process, nothing that would be allowed when it comes to, say, assessing students. It was a bureaucratic process that produced wholly meaningless results.

And if the ARC wishes to argue otherwise, great. Make public to everyone how the system worked. Better still, the Abbott government should order the ARC to make it public. In Canada all this arbitrary and subjective ranking of universities and of component parts of universities (such as law schools and medical schools and more) is done by a weekly news magazine, Maclean’s. And how it goes about this is no more subjective than the way the ARC does it in Australia. The big difference is that in Canada it costs taxpayers nothing. It is done by the news magazine to sell copies. In Australia it costs taxpayers tens of millions of dollars for a process that is no better at delivering substantive assessments of quality than the free Canadian one.

This managerialist measuring mania filters down to the university level too. Here’s one example. A few years back the ARC created a journals ranking list, one that graded peer-reviewed journals. Now I can speak only for law, but the list it produced was a farce. After a few years the ARC announced that it had abandoned the journals ranking list. But universities, or mine at any rate, had incorporated this list into how they judged academic output within the university. So an abandoned list—one that could no longer be changed—was still being used to assess excellence (and still used implicitly in other areas too—I mention no specifics).

In today’s Australian universities, worthless and meaningless information is seen as better than no data at all. Take that as Jane Austen’s rule that is universally acknowledged.

The ARC quality assessment exercise, the most recent one, found that Australia had five law schools “well above world ranking” and eight more “above world ranking”. Well, we all know that you never go far wrong with shameless flattery. Personally, I doubt that there is one law school in Australia that would be as good as any of the top thirty US law schools, or the top six or seven in the UK.

Run an expensive ARC quality measuring exercise and all scepticism goes out the window as long as you flatter the nation and tell it we have wonderful universities. The newspapers love it. The politicians love it. Students in those massive classes of hundreds even love it, at least for a few fleeting moments.

The truth is that our universities fit into the world hierarchy pretty much where you’d expect for a smallish country in terms of population whose economy has been doing well but that doesn’t spend very much on tertiary education and which massively over-regulates and over-centralises decision-making. We do okay, and we have a small handful of really good universities, not Harvard or Oxford but good ones, and lots of mediocre ones and far too many awful ones. But that wouldn’t rouse the troops in the newspapers, would it?

How can things be improved?

So now the hard part, the offering of a few suggestions for fixing things. Here goes, and in no particular order.

1. I would make all Australian universities publish the ratio of paid administrators to academics in classrooms. And if some academic wins a grant that takes him or her out of the classroom for a few years, then that person would count as a non-classroom person during that time. This published ratio could even be the basis on which the government increased or decreased funding to the universities, though given the Commonwealth government’s love of bureaucracy that might be a tad hypocritical.

2. I would also force all universities to publish the names and salaries of their top twenty or twenty-five highest-paid people, with a note on what they do and whether they are in the classroom or not. Publicity, said Bentham, was a powerful force for good. I think that Benthamite prescription would be a very good thing for our universities. (In Ontario, where I was on sabbatical last year, the salaries of all university employees earning over $100,000 are public information. Similar such things are true of many US state universities.)

3. I would close down the ARC except for grants to the hard sciences, thus saving many millions. One can make a case for the game of grant-seeking and grant-giving and grant-getting in the context of massively expensive equipment and trials in the natural sciences and medicine. But you cannot make this case, not with a straight face, in the humanities or law or (usually) business. Just take the money saved and give it to the universities. If they want good research produced they will cut back a bit on teaching duties for each academic who actually produces. Note that this desire to get rid of the whole ARC grant-applying bureaucracy is widely held among academics of all political persuasions. A number of left-leaning academics have told me off the record that they are praying that the new government will defund the ARC. It has few friends outside the university managerial class.

4. Last, I would do something to try to bring back some decentralised decision-making in the universities. Maybe this would happen when the salaries of all the top administrators have to be published. Maybe it would happen if the government’s funding depended on a lower ratio of administrator to in-class academic.

So I end on a less than positive, but not wholly pessimistic note. Let’s now hope that fixing our universities works its way to the top of the political agenda.

James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland, and was recently on sabbatical at Osgoode Hall Law School, Toronto.


One thought on “Why Our Universities Are Failing

  • says:

    I would recomend that you think again about grants to the “hard sciences”
    I was once invited to sit in on the presentations made by various applicants for a tenured lecturing position on their research projects at my local university as part of their job interview. After listening to several of the talks including a really interesting talk by a Russian who, unfortunately, had a terrible accent that would make it difficult for any students to understand him. I asked the professor who was running the job interview how much weight would they give to the fact that the students would be unable to understand this guy should he be appointed. None whatsoever, was his reply. There is only one applicant here – the Canadian – he brings 5 million in grant money – I can employ 25 staff on that. Incidentally the Canadian’s research topic was an esoteric branch of “Climate Change” and the grant money appeared to have the desired effect on the University’s stance on that subject.

    Students, it would appear are an unfortunate but necessary net expense for universities.

    It appears to me that the whole existence of universities is optimised towards where the grant funding is available.

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