Tuesday, November 30, 2004

The Future of Tertiary Education


Yesterday's Age had an article entitled "California dreaming or tertiary futures?" - available at http://www.theage.com.au/news/Education-News/California-dreaming-or-tertiary-futures/2004/11/26/1101219740531.html.

This article discusses the split between teaching and research institutions. The Liberal argument goes something like this. Being accounted a University is prestigious, and everyone wants to get their qualifications from a University. To be a University, you need to put quite a lot of time and money into research, which is expensive, and doesn't really matter for the teaching part. Publically funded institutions can pay for their research with government money, and be viable. Private institutions cannot be competitive with public ones while incurring the overhead costs of research. There is surplus demand, and it should impact on the quality of degrees to allow teaching only institutions of sufficient calibre to call themselves Universities without a research components. This will up supply, keeping people happier and more educated.

It almost sounds reasonable.

Whinging lefties the world over are up in arms, because a number of Bad Things will inevitably happen once you do this. Firstly, it is felt that the quality of education at a teaching-only institution will not be high. Secondly, Universities (even public ones) bankroll their research with teaching income. Competing against teaching-only institutions will mean less money for research unless their funding structures change. Thirdly, it creates a divide between research and students, who will be divorced from the research culture. Fourthly, it's the thin end of the wedge for axing HECS. This need not be true, but everyone knows what the Libs are thinking.

So where are the flaws in these arguments, and is there really a problem here?

Basically, the driver of change, although disputed in the article, is the reduction of public funding for education. Universities face increasing pressure. The government basically doesn't want to know about higher education beyond its abilities to turn creative students into productive units of labour. Higher education as a goal-in-itself is not on the radar for public funding. They want to make sure as many people as possible get, you know, kind of well educated, but it's not a big deal for them how many people get to do Ph.D.'s in philosophy. A skilled populace is the goal, not an educated one.

What this means is that the government is forcing education into an increasingly competitive environment. This means that as an industry, they need to meet the demands of the populace cheaply, which means it's difficult to fund research. Hence teaching-only Universities. Clearly, there is also a popular push towards this model, otherwise the demand could be met by technical diplomas rather than "University" qualifications. Employers want the safety net of accreditation and respect that you get out of a Uni degree. The whinging leftie in me winced as I wrote that, given my opinions about the declining quality of higher education, another effect of the pressure of competition.

The bad reasoning is in the eyes of the government for viewing the competitive pressure of University degrees as a bad thing. There isn't anything wrong with having University degrees differentiating the intellectually gifted from the merely tenacious. They don't want to be seen as denying anyone an education, in either the voter's eyes or those from overseas. Oh, not to mention they would dearly love to sell more teaching-only courses to overseas students for increasing revenue.

I believe that the move to teaching-only Universities has unstoppable momentum, although it doesn't _need_ to happen. My expectation is that Honours and Ph.D. degrees will become the new place for intellectual pursuit for-itself.


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10/05/2005 08:01:00 PM  

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