Monday, November 17, 2014
Ostensibly, unis exist to add to the store of human knowledge and to educate the brightest of the rising generation. All very virtuous.
When you think about it, however, you see that unis are about the pursuit of certification, standing, position and prestige. The main way they earn their revenue is by granting superior status to young people seeking to enter the workforce.
In theory, a degree proves your possession of knowledge in a certain area. Often in practice it certifies little more than that you're smart enough and persistent enough to have passed a lot of exams. Either way, try climbing the employment ladder without one.
This makes universities gatekeepers granting access to the good, well-paying jobs in the economy. Which gives them a kind of monopoly power.
In the old days the government paid them to teach, assess and certify young people; these days the young people are required, to an increasing extent, to buy their qualifications directly, making them customers as much as pupils.
Such is the strength of the unis' monopoly over access to the good jobs that most young people would be prepared to pay huge fees and take on very large debts before they resigned themselves to a lifetime of low socio-economic status.
The status symbols issued by unis are themselves subject to a well-understood system of ranking: doctorates rank above master's degrees, with thesis masters outranking course-work masters. Then come bachelor's degrees, with honours degrees higher than pass degrees and first-class honours higher than second class. Not forgetting the ultimate status symbol: being awarded a university medal.
But uni degrees are subject to a second, informal status ranking: employers (and parents) tend to be more impressed by degrees awarded by the older, bigger "sandstone" universities than those from younger, outer-suburban or regional unis.
While in the public's mind the unis' existence is justified by their teaching, few people become academics because of a burning desire to teach. Academics want to do research and, though some become good teachers and enjoy teaching, for the most part teaching is regarded as an unfortunate distraction.
The unis try to conceal the conflict between their priority (research) and the public's (teaching) by claiming that academics at the forefront of their discipline's research effort make the best teachers.
Students know this is rubbish. It pretends good teaching doesn't require possession of teaching skills and forgets that most undergraduate teaching has little to do with the teacher's super-specialty.
Academics know the fast track to the top comes from the quality and quantity of their research, as evidenced by their publication records. Promotion assessments - moving people up the status ladder from lecturer to full professor - give little weight to teaching, contribution to public debate or even the writing of textbooks.
The universities themselves are driven by their desire to raise their status relative to other unis by increasing the quantity and quality of their research. The government publishes regular rankings of our universities and their faculties, largely determined by their research output.
Universities threaten to sack academics who fail to reach research output quotas. They urge staff to compete for government research grants, granted partly on the basis of previously published research. Staff who win grants are rewarded with money they can use to pay part-timers to take over their teaching obligations.
The quality of published research is determined largely by the reputation of the academic journal that published it. All journals are ranked, with American and British journals scoring many points and Australian journals scoring few points.
(Since international journals are reluctant to publish research into Australian issues, this means our government uses our taxes to fund a universities-designed scheme that discourages our academics from doing empirical research on problems of particular relevance to us.)
In recent years the eight sandstone unis' greatest motivation has been to raise their position on a couple of regular international rankings of universities. To this end they've come increasingly to offer senior positions to American and British academics rather than locals, since the foreigners are more likely to get themselves published in more prestigious journals.
Some unis' drive to lift their international reputation involves a policy of never hiring lecturers whose highest qualification is a PhD they themselves granted. Cultural cringe, anyone?
How does this obsession with status-seeking tie in with the Abbott government's plan to deregulate uni fees? Watch this space.