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Whatever happened to the 'world's best job'? How to reinvigorate academia

Governments should focus less on regulating universities and more on supporting them.

One of my most esteemed teachers, the late L. J. "Len" Hume, said to me once that he enjoyed his job, "provided they leave me alone". He was referring to the freedom academics then had (in the 1980s) to develop their own style of teaching, scholarship and research, free of managerial or administrative oversight.

Hume would have been disappointed, but unsurprised, by the enormous changes to the academic profession over the past 40 years. In that time, the university sector has absorbed the former colleges of advanced education and institutes of technology, enrolments have burgeoned and universities have become major export earners. Academic productivity has risen markedly. Instead of the relatively small classes that Hume taught, most are now much larger, with a huge range of ability levels within them.

This transition has inevitably affected standards. Universities still do a reasonably good job of credentialing the young, particularly in the professions. But no academic these days could assume the level of knowledge or set the amount of reading that Hume and his colleagues did. In those days, if you couldn't keep up, you dropped out or failed. Today, very few who stay the course actually fail.

I wouldn't want to give the impression that the pre-1990s university inhabited some kind of golden age. Undoubtedly, too many students fell by the wayside. But the transition from an elite to a mass system happened too quickly and too crudely.

The consequence of this shift is that universities have needed to learn to operate more like schools, and less like institutions of higher learning. They must cater for students of widely varying abilities. Unlike schools, however, universities are self-credentialing institutions – they set their own standards. Each university decides on the degrees it will award, the content of the degrees and, most crucially, who passes and who fails. There are no external examinations and, very often, not much in the way of internal examinations. There is no cross-university equivalent to the NSW Higher School Certificate, let alone the International Baccalaureate. The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency oversees (among other things) processes for maintaining standards, but the crucial issue of assessment has proved elusive.

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It would be almost impossible to imagine all candidates for an arts or science degree sitting for the same external exams and being ranked accordingly. But taking the universities' word for it has its difficulties, too. If you're an employer, it's hard to be sure what level of knowledge any given person with a degree from an Australian university has actually achieved. A record of distinctions or high distinctions would indicate better-than-average performance. But few employers have time to inspect academic records. Even if they did, they would obtain little sense as to what exactly the student had mastered from the profusion of units that constitute the average degree.

Many academics work very hard at their teaching. They write copious comments on essays, urging improvement. They get upset when, as often happens, the students concerned are just too busy to take much notice, or are indifferent to the advice, figuring that in all probability they will get through anyway. Too often, the best students don't get the attention they need. They continue to perform well, but large sluggish tutorial groups (if indeed there are any tutorials at all) offer insufficient challenge.

As for the academics themselves, very few find the work fulfilling. Those who must teach large classes of often very weak students are in the worst position of all. The institutions in which they work are dominated by people (mostly academics) who think of themselves as managers. But the university's idea of management would surprise many businesspeople. The goals of the modern Australian university are increasingly financial and reputational, rather than intellectual. It's necessary to get students through the door and out the door again, because it is students who keep the doors open. But students are fickle and attracting them requires incessant marketing. Research-intensive universities devote enormous effort to improving their international rankings in order to attract more overseas students.

In all this turmoil, universities find it very difficult to ask the strategic questions. How big do we want to be? What kind of students do we want? What kind of employer should we be? Who are our significant stakeholders? Institutions based on strong stakeholder partnerships can work very well. A good example is my own former employer, the University of NSW in Canberra, which recently celebrated 50 years of partnership with the Defence Department.

But these kinds of long-term partnerships are rare, and becoming rarer. The Australian National University had a de facto partnership with the federal government, via special funding of the ANU's research schools, but that relationship ended when the ANU was fully absorbed into the general research-funding system.

All organisations are the sum of the people in them. Australian universities have never been particularly good at bringing out the best in their staff. Workloads have increased and so has the pressure to perform, without much being provided in the way of extra support. To make matters worse, the great Australian cultural cringe is alive and well in academia. If you are chasing rankings, recruiting stars from institutions overseas is easier than growing your own.

Australian universities have never good at bringing out the best in their staff.

How do we fix it? The present system is both highly regulated and hyper-competitive. It is already effectively demand-driven, in the sense that universities must compete to attract sufficient domestic and international students to maintain themselves. Deregulation (uncapping fees for undergraduate degrees) risks further disruption for little gain, least of all to students.

University of Melbourne vice-chancellor Professor Glyn Davis, in his book The Australian idea of a university, suggests recreating a statutory body to oversee sector-wide policy analysis and implementation. It seems a good move. Universities might then develop the mutual trust to cooperate more with each other, and focus their efforts by working out what each does best.

But it is within the universities themselves that most change is needed. Many academics think of "management" as a dirty word. Properly used, however, good management should enable the achievement of goals, rather than substituting for them. A more developed style of educational management might give academics the time and confidence they need to clarify, in a collegial way, what they are trying to achieve in their teaching, particularly in relation to the assessment standards they wish to apply.

It won't be easy. Conversations among educators, no matter how nobly they start, tend to become wrangles about resources before you can say "unified national system". It is difficult, in the current financial circumstances, to see how to make room for a more enabling style of management at the institutional level.

Perhaps the best course of action, at least for now, is that governments should stop trying to substitute regulation for support, and acknowledge that the current system has been squeezed dry. Working in a university should be the best job in the world. Academics (and managers and administrators) need to rediscover that joy.

Professor Jenny Stewart is a visiting fellow in UNSW Canberra's school of business. j.stewart@adfa.edu.au

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