University reform, part I: what are the options?

In previous posts I talked about the immense overhead in the university sector. Some 70 cents in the commonwealth dollar aimed at universities ends up in admin and US researchers have calculated that the optimal amount of administration is so much lower than the current Australian average that we should be able to axe 40% without a real reduction in teaching and research services. The immense waste (and corruption!) in our sector is thus increasingly being recognised in the Australian media and even in a recent commissioned Ernst and Young consultancy report.

The question to the readers though is what can realistically be done to deliver university teaching and research at reduced costs in Australia? Forget about being outraged or wishing for some return to a mythical glorious past by means of some remorseful redemptive action. In the real world everyone hangs on tight to their current positions and will fight changes that affect them negatively tooth and nail, morality be damned. that is normal and to be expected.

In that light, if you were the minister for education in Canberra, supported by the ministry, public opinion, and business, what would you actually do to turn things around and get more bang for the public buck?

On Friday I plan to blog about the existing barriers to reform and how they knock the teeth out of most of the reforms on the table. On Monday you get my best-guess as to what a minister might realistically do that would have some positive effect. Till then I think it important to hear what you would do and why you think it would work.

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11 years ago

Just as a start, two obvious ones in my face just today are:
1) kill off all the government league tables (ERA etc.). I see no point in them all, especially because the GO8 already gets most of the research funds, and methinks that research funds coming from a partially independent body are far better than those given based on playing kiss the behind of the VC.
2) kill off any reporting rules designed to measure happiness and not what students actually learn, as there is no evidence these have made things better. They also mean people waste money on DVCs of learning etc. and their army of cronies based on trying to boost these things.

11 years ago

Scratch Unis completely. Removing their feudal imprimatur, vestigal as it is, will help ongoing secular progress. Symbolism is important apparently, ditch the clown clothes.

Lets create new secular institutions.

Recognise that many research career pathways are an apprenticeship system and fund major co-operative research [institutions/organisation/centre/insert favourite word here] in meatspace for their human [networking/party/ancestor worship] powers. Expand them to take over.

Leave undergraduate studies to the massive online courses, allowed it to filter down the age cohorts into the younger teenage years, enable schools to humanise this process rather than putting a bunch of teenagers in the same prison or university of character assasination.

Encourage hackerspaces and community mutuals for the in between bits. A lot.

And let the lawyer/accountancy/economics people retreat to blogs, masonic lodges, BBSs and progress association newsletters. They should not be funded at all. (Hey, this is much better than “First we kill all the lawyers…”)

11 years ago

A third one that employs countless administrators for almost no gain is TEQSA, who are mainly concerned with creating paper trails, and not quality at all. They could be massively scaled back. Probably entirely for areas that also have their own standards bodies.

11 years ago

I can add another one (all I have to do is listen to the BS at work!): Commercialization: The government shouldn’t encourage universities to spend more than they get back (as they do now) or indeed commercialize things at all. I don’t see why we want universities acting like/competing with businesses (with a completely different funding model) for product development. This would remove another pile of admin people.

john r walker
11 years ago

Only a thought..
Over the years a lot of training that was previously skills/on the job oriented has been converted to a academic style approach- nurse training and biz training for example.

Returning this sort of training to it previous skills/on the job basis might help reduce the inflation of admin payments.

Academic (theoretical) training can be delivered to very large groups of students, all at the same time by a small number of tutors, theoretical knowledge of a skill is easier to gain than gaining a working skill/knowledge and therefore successful graduate production rates can be much higher and at the same time the production costs per graduate unit output are much lower. This cost efficient approach to skills training created surpluses that then could be reallocated to bigger desks for admin.

On the other hand, skill tutoring is labor intensive, can visibly fail and the ‘on the job’ component of the system comes out a area that is not controlled by the ‘admin’. The opportunity for efficient admin growth without obvious visible failure to deliver skills should be smaller.


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