Education revolution comes incrementally

Well, it’s taken a while, but we’ve finally got an electoral bribe in this election campaign targeted straight at my hip pocket – or, at least, my hip pocket a few years from now:

A Rudd Labor Government will invest in new Future Fellowships to keep Australia’s best and brightest mid-career researchers in Australia.

Federal Labor’s Future Fellowships program will offer four year Fellowships valued at $140,000 a year to 1,000 of Australia’s top researchers in the middle of their career.

In addition, each researcher’s institution would receive a $50,000 grant to support the purchase of related infrastructure and equipment for their research project.

The further goodie for the university sector is more scholarships. Some go to undergraduate students, which helps their living costs, but as a postdoc I’m more directly affected by the plans to double the number of postgraduate scholarships by 2012:

There are currently around 40,000 higher degree by research students in Australia, yet only 1,500 new Australian Postgraduate Awards are granted each year. The Australian Postgraduate Award provides an annual stipend of $19,500 for up to three and a half years for PhD candidates and two years for Masters by research.

Under Labor’s Scholarships for a Competitive Future, the total number of commencing Australian Postgraduate Awards allocated each year will steadily increase from 1,580 in 2008 to 3,500 in 2012. Under Federal Labor’s plan nearly 10,000 postgraduate research students will be supported each year by 2012.

Absent from this proposal is anything directly targeted at improving university undergraduate teaching. As some members of the LP Borg have been noting through our interneural communicators, undergraduate teaching – particularly in Arts faculties – has borne the brunt of the Howard government’s consistent underfunding. The research fellowships should allow some increase in the size of many faculties – thus, perhaps, reducing the pressure for academics with heavy teaching loads to also churn out endless papers to ensure the faculty looks good in the RQF (the research quality framework – something else that an incoming Labor government should look closely at, given the angst it’s causing throughout the sector). It’s likely that a lot of them will do a bit of teaching anyway. But, still, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the massive tax cuts being offered by both parties in the upcoming election.

There are any number of other things that need attention in the university sector – more bodies for undergraduate teaching, doing something about the work hours many full-time students take on, a reduction in the amount of administrative busywork placed on senior academics through the ARC process, more research funding targeted at fundamental “blue sky” research that doesn’t have immediate commercial application, amongst others. Oh, and top of my personal list – a team of crack snipers for the assassination of careers teachers, for giving school-leavers the idea that the exclusive purpose of universities is about getting a nicely-framed meal ticket, with any actual learning along the way being incidental…

What does the university sector need, and how long will it take to undo the damage of a decade of malign neglect?

Posted in education, federal election '07, politics
36 comments on “Education revolution comes incrementally
  1. Klaus K says:

    From my experience, the increase in the number of scholarships is a good idea: I’ve seen students struggle to get well-deserved APAs because of, for example, a move from one university to another with attendant inter-university administrative problems; at an undergraduate level, I’ve seen good students have academic progress derailed by having to work too much just to support themselves. In both cases, as long as the scholarships are allocated appropriately, it will mean better retention of students who clearly should be there, but for reasons that have nothing to do with their abilities are discouraged from continuing or prevented from thriving. More APAs is also a good way of adding to the amount of research being done without immediate commercial application.

    I agree that having academics do administration work is a problem, and not just in the context of ARC projects. It is simply inefficient to have somebody on a high pay rate, whose expertise is elsewhere, devoting all their time to administration, but that increasingly seems to be the way universities are run.

  2. wilful says:

    The rumour that Glyn Davis is headed for a big role in Canberrra will certainly give the new Government a perspective on higher education.

  3. mbahnisch says:

    a team of crack snipers for the assassination of careers teachers, for giving school-leavers the idea that the exclusive purpose of universities is about getting a nicely-framed meal ticket, with any actual learning along the way being incidental…

    Universities are definitely complicit in the inculcation of this attitude, Rob, particularly their marketing departments.

    What Labor has announced is welcome, but it’s a small step on the road. When you consider that there are many subjects with only a small number of tutorials during a semester, tutorials stuffed with 30+ students, assessment dumbed down and replaced with multi-choice or “quizzes” in order to save money on marking, no money for updating curriculum, students working 20 or 30 hours a week and only doing what it takes to pass, prerequisites abolished to chase numbers and thus majors with no structure and deficient in content, etc, etc, things really are broken rather badly. I’ve been in this game for ten years now, and I think a tipping point was reached about 3 years ago, because things have got very much worse.

    And it’s not much different at the sandstones from anywhere else.

    A couple of research fellowships per faculty will make no meaningful difference to the collapse of undergraduate teaching that has become endemic, and which has been exacerbated by the crazy RQF (which I’m glad to hear Kim Carr promise will be abolished).

    Many academics I know, including senior Professors, have come to the conclusion that Australia is fast becoming an intellectual backwater across large areas of the human sciences, and it’s hard to disagree.

  4. Klaus, that might be true, but PhD students aren’t generally going to be the ones to take a big punt on the really risky projects.

    I want to find some way to fund people to have a crack at fundamental breakthroughs, not just incrementalism.

  5. mbahnisch says:

    The current research training model works against that through the tight constraints on completion, and the administrivia loaded on supervisors compounds it. When all the monetary incentives are targetted towards finishing a thesis in 3 and a half years (and in some areas, an increasing load of coursework), unadventurous research which is easier to complete quickly is priced at a premium.

  6. Klaus K says:

    It’s interesting that you should say that the tipping point was reached three years ago, Mark, since that was when I started teaching at a tertiary level. Having had no experience of the earlier period, I initially assumed that it was always this way. My first semester was marked by some of the things you mention, chiefly students doing just what it takes to pass due to other commitments, and large tutorial sizes. In the intervening period, things have improved a little, but I’m conscious that I’ve been working in a department that is growing and has money for marking and curriculum development. Some of the stories I’ve heard from people working in other parts of the university, or in other institutions, suggest that the ‘backwater’ narrative is valid.

    I agree, Robert. My argument is more that it’s an additional reason to support more APAs than that it fundamentally addresses the ‘non-commercial’ research problems.

  7. Klaus K says:

    There’s no room for failure in the model as it currently exists, and that is precisely what is going to happen if people take risks. It is a necessary part of ‘having a crack at fundamental breakthroughs’, I think.

  8. mbahnisch says:

    Klaus, I’ve seen several shifts occur – some fairly dramatic like cutting 10 tutorials a semester to 5, and giving up on holding the line at 20 students in first year tutorials in order to at least give the first years a tolerably decent experience – but also a lot of incremental deterioration in funding and standards which seems to have tipped over in many places quite recently.

    Rudd did say that it would take a long time to repair the damage, and I’m glad he recognised that.

    In higher ed, as with so many areas of policy, my feeling is that the last realistic time at which much of the direction of Howardianism could have been reversed was in 2001 if Beazley had won. That’s not a comment on Beazley compared to Rudd, but a statement about the fact that once governments reach their third term, if they’ve tried to shift things in a particular direction (consider school education and private health as well), the new paradigm is normally well entrenched and very difficult to turn around. What we need in higher ed is some really revolutionary thinking directed not at returning to the conditions of the past, but reorienting what we’ve got now (and that’s the reality) in some new, more hopeful direction.

  9. Bruce says:

    Thanks Robert,

    I have some comments as a researcher, possibly near mid career, but really having just changed fields due to lack of opportunities in what I used to do.

    The shortage in Australia is NOT in higher degree research students or scholarships, but in career pathways for researchers and academics once they finish a PhD or postdoc. I did my PhD in Sydney and spent two years doing research O/S. For family reasons I am constrained to finding work in Sydney.

    Biomedical engineering proved too specialised and I am now a biostatistician. There is a desperate shortage of biostatisticians in Australia and particularly in fields like genetic epidemiology, medical genetics etc., which cannot be done without a sophisticated statistical contribution. However, there is also a desperate shortage of people in authority who realise this fact.

    I had to laugh at a recent job ad for a bioinformatics person, offering $35-40k. This is less than a postdoc. I cannot support a mortgage and a family in Sydney on that.

    While I don’t know the overall proportion of higher degree by research students who are funded in Australia, there are a lot more funding opportunities than Australian Postgraduate Awards. Even assuming 1500 per year, the average duration of a PhD is at least 4 years, meaning that 6000 of the 40,000 have probably had APAs. Many others would have other awards. How many are overseas students? Fewer masters by research have scholarships, but there are more students doing masters by research than PhDs.

    While I don’t know your area of research, it is true that the humanities are poorly funded in comparison to other fields, but this is a seperate debate.

  10. Bruce says:

    To mbahnisch :
    “Klaus, that might be true, but PhD students aren’t generally going to be the ones to take a big punt on the really risky projects.”

    This may be true, but unfortunately ther is a tendency to use PhD students as defacto research assistants/associates. Although my experience is that the problme is worse in the US.

  11. Paul Burns says:

    I’m an example of some-one who benefited mightily by a postgrad. scholarship. Without it I would not have been able to cfomplete my MA (I got a 2.1 Honours). That MA was eventually published as a book, which is recognised by my peers as a significant contribution to WW2 history. I’m not blowing my own trumpet here, I got over that long ago, simply giving an example of how the increase in postgrad scholarships can mean nothing but good for the future of our intellectual discourse. I’m well and truly retired now, due to illness,but these mid-career scholarships can do nothing but good for our tertiary sector. More powert to Rudd’s education revolution, even if dumbasses like Mark Vaile can’t get what he’s on about.

  12. Adam says:

    Hi all…

    I’m on both sides of the fence, being both a postgraduate student and staff member. I’ve been on staff as a sessional staff member (a fancy term for a casual) for ***five*** years now, all the while designing and running a core module (1/4 of requirement for the year) in second year in a three year undergraduate degree. That’s right, a sessional dictating curriculum, with the required extra work outside teaching hours. I can’t really hold down another job, given the preparation and timetabling uncertainties from semester to semester. I’m not alone in this, as some of my colleagues have waited ***up to 8 years*** for their permanent positions. One would hope there was some cash for a position for me soon, as living on $15K a year is not conducive to good credit ratings. I know I could go elsewhere, like the private sector where I was previously, but I now want to work in the education sector for its social benefit. Why should I surrender my intentions in life when there is so much to be done? So I soldier on like many colleagues in the same boat, awaiting a permanent job…

    From the postgraduate side, I’m trying to make a real step forward in my current PhD, rather than undertake simple incrementalism. I am currently well supported by my university (thanks for the institutional funding peoples which has relieved the above pressures), my supervisors (bless them for their support of academic freedom and risk) and my lab (good colleagues all). But I know my lab is a rarity in Australian circles. How do you promote this kind of excellence?

    Rudd’s programme can’t solve the problem but it points to the problem as needing a solution, which in itself is a mighty step forward beyond the status quo.

  13. mbahnisch says:

    I agree with that last assessment, Adam, but it is important for people to realise that things won’t be rosy in universities just because a Rudd government has been elected.

  14. Bryn says:

    As an undergraduate, I don’t see the situation to be necessarily dire.* However, there are certainly big problems, a key one in many faculties (particularly business- and science-oriented ones) being international students who’ve been accepted despite limited English ability because the uni needs the fees. This puts an unfair burden on others in group work and that sort of thing, since they essentially have to cover for someone who doesn’t understand the work. It’s the most common complaint you hear from people in Commerce degrees in particular. The only solution to this is simply increasing funding of universities so they don’t have to relax standards for overseas students just because they’re desperate for the cash.

    I’m really not impressed with Rudd’s university policy as announced. I don’t know much about the postgraduate level, but a few more commonwealth learning scholarships aren’t going to change anything except putting more money into the pockets of a minority of students. CLS isn’t accessible to most students anyway, since it’s open only to those from rural regions and the socio-economically disadvantaged. The only other undergrad-focused policy he has that I’m aware of is the halving of maths and science HECS, which is both pointless (people don’t make uni decisions based on HECS levels) and continues the undervaluing of the humanities that is so evident in modern politics. What universities need is simply more funding so they can employ more staff and decrease tute sizes. (Most undergrads would probably tell you that they think tutes are a colossal waste of time, but they could get better if they were smaller and more familiar.) Incidentally, what’s Rudd’s policy on VSU?

    *Although I’m in the Usyd Arts faculty, which seems to be doing better than a lot of other places. We’re getting two new departments next year, though – Economics and Business is finally dumping political economy (having been threatening to do it for decades) and government and international relations, so they’re moving to Arts – and unless we pull substantial extra funding for those fairly large departments then things could go downhill.

  15. mbahnisch says:

    (Most undergrads would probably tell you that they think tutes are a colossal waste of time, but they could get better if they were smaller and more familiar.)

    Often they are, because of the class sizes. They have a real tendency to turn into “mini-lectures” and it’s difficult to facilitate a good discussion, particularly when time pressures mean that students very rarely look at readings that aren’t directly assessed.

    When I was an undergrad student 20 years ago, doing Arts at UQ, tutes were limited to 10 students max and assessment (even in first year) was a 20 min presentation written up a week later as a 1000 to 1500 word paper. It wasn’t ideal in some ways, and I don’t want to do “golden age” nostalgia for the sake of it, but this sort of environment was a lot more positive for learning. Tutors, back then, were very often employed as tutorial assistants which meant that they had an income for the whole year on top of their scholarships and thus didn’t need to pile up the hours to make a living wage, and generally the student-academic ratios were much smaller than they are now, allowing a much better chance of genuine pedagogical interaction.

    That sort of thing ain’t never coming back, though.

  16. Su says:

    Bruce said: “The shortage in Australia is NOT in higher degree research students or scholarships, but in career pathways for researchers and academics once they finish a PhD or postdoc.”

    Exactly; Kurt Lambeck from the Australian Academy of Science was emphasizing this on The Science Show on radio Nat last weekend. He said;

    “Above all, I would expect recognition of the need for improved career paths for our early and mid-career scientists to fill tomorrow’s ranks of leaders. This will be our Achilles Heel if there are no plans to bring back the talented young Australian researchers who are now completing PhDs and post-docs in the leading overseas laboratories. All will be doomed to fail if there are no stable career paths during the critical period when our young scientists are most creative yet under greatest stress.”

    My sister, a Fulbright scholar, is currently working in student services, previously she has worked for DEWR and Centrelink. She has a PhD in ecology! Completely wasted potential.

  17. Adam says:

    hi mark,

    i agree, but (following George Mega’s description in the GG) I’d rather have a lemon than a turd any day. At least I can suck the lemon and maybe get some nutrition, albeit slight.


  18. Klaus K says:

    I agree Bryn, Rudd’s not addressing fundamental problems with any of this, but as a gesture of recognition and acknowledgement that things need to change direction, I think it’s a good thing. Let’s hope this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

    My tutes were about 15 students each this semester, which was a huge improvement from a few years ago when I watched in horror as a tutorial room smaller than my living room fill up with nearly 35 students in the first week.

  19. Klaus K says:


  20. Adam says:

    mark, i agree. the only way those things you mention are coming back (similar to my memory of arts and law at monash around approximately the same time) is if we roll universities back to being centres for people who want research-based careers, rather than one size fits all general academies. issues of equity of access dominant in the 80’s would possibly have to be scuppered. i’m sure there’s a solution somewhere that avoids this; buggered if i know what it is right now.

  21. mbahnisch says:

    I don’t know, either, Adam, and I wouldn’t particularly want to go back to a binary system – particularly as the sandstone unis’ student cohort is still largely the already privileged. But higher ed really is crying out for genuinely “fresh thinking”.

    I kinda hope the NTEU and higher ed policy wonks might do some. Part of the problem has been the defensive posture that opponents of the government have been forced into adopting.

  22. Chris says:

    Requiring people to undergo some form of teacher training before lecturing would be a great start. I saw many examples at uni of people who may be great researchers, but hopeless teachers who would be significantly improved just by a bit of training.

    Kind of amused by the comments about 30+ students in tutorials. In the engineering subjects I took the norm was for the tutorial class to be the same size as the lecture class (eg around 100 people). Was more about a venue where students helped each other.

  23. Klaus K says:

    It really depends on what a tutorial is supposed to do. With an hour on the clock, barely room to move and a minimum number of student-facilitated discussion questions to be raised during the semester (and assessed) it was an untenable situation, and was thankfully alleviated by a senior academic starting up another tute the next week in the same time slot to take pressure off of me and the other tutors.

    I think teacher training is a good idea, and I’ve benefited greatly from the sessions I’ve had.

  24. mick says:

    I very much agree with Bruce’s comment. One of the problems identified by uni admin, faculty members, and the NTEU has been the lack of career pathways for researchers in Oz. In short, you can get a PhD but furthering your career becomes almost impossible. It’s often said that the best way of gettting a faculty position in an Australian uni is to keep your eye on the death notices in the newspaper.

    I spent yesterday working here in the UK with five mid-career Australian academics who were all discussing Rudd’s plan. One of them put it best when he said, “I’d prefer more permanent faculty jobs, but this is the next best thing.”. Incidently every one of them said that they would apply for one of these fellowships. Hell, I probably will as well.

  25. mick says:

    Chris, I’ve tutored in some of those huge engineering classes and they worked pretty well. A lot of work would go into planning the questions that the students would cover. Also, at least in my department, for the really big tutes they tried to get the really experineced tutors to run the class. I should point on that the marking load was insane though!

    The problem is of course that in many Arts subjects you have to teach via discussion. Wheras in Engineering we are handing out problem sets for people to churn their way through. It’s kinda easy to organize that on mass (though it is still better to do in small groups).

  26. […] Education revolution comes incrementally (2007-11-15, Robert Merkel) at the new site for Larvatus Prodeo. […]

  27. FDB says:

    “It’s kinda easy to organize that on mass”

    Well yeah, and in Arts you’ve got to do it en masse, which is much harder.

  28. philiptravers says:

    No doubt the buzz here means Rudd has you partially conned….and I dont know why all the talk that went on for years about networking,and now in the business world they have instant business partners, that attempts by ex students right across the spectra of studies an institutions isnt the sure fire way to build a future that government has to listen to,otherwise even us dum lay scientist engineers will never again offer any glue to keep the bridge from carrying its due load.If you buggars with the education and not the resources lack confidence dont expect us to think all this confidence is worthy and somebody else has to pay for it..browbeat by brilliance on unsuspected areas of need where blatantly obvious ..becomes a reason to have this expenditure.Otherwise all this becomes a sub-routine of the Ruddbot gumf.{some may spell it gumph}.

  29. mick says:

    philip, what are you talking about?

  30. aidan says:

    With regards to career paths, I reckon it would help if you could employ yourself with an ARC discovery grant. It is quite possible for someone to hold a discovery grant, employ someone else as a post-doctoral fellow with the money, and not have a job themselves.

    I realise this is still soft money, but at least it is something!

    Could the US system where senior academics buy themselves out of teaching be an option too? Again it is soft money for the younger academics who are brought in to take up the teaching commitments, but at least it is something. Larger departments might even be able to budget for a certain amount of this sort of funding on an on-going basis and hire permanent staff to cover the shortfall.

  31. mick says:

    aiden, I thought that you could employ yourself on a Discovery grant?

  32. mbahnisch says:

    Yeah, me too.

  33. Klaus K says:

    You can also buy yourself out of teaching commitments as a senior academic. Well, I’ve seen it done, I’m not sure about the particulars of it though.

  34. aidan says:

    My bad. You can nominate yourself as an ARC Fellow on a proposal.

    Clearly hasn’t helped much then eh?

  35. Sam Clifford says:

    I wrote about the maths and science plan on my group blog and from talking to people at uni the problem is a lack of job opportunities in Australia for science and maths graduates. Not only does this force graduates overseas but it stops people enrolling in the field in the first place. The CSIRO needs to be better funded with more graduate programs across the sciences as well as CRC tie-ins with universities so that unis and CSIRO can work on non-commercial research with a decent level of funding.

    Mick, my joke is that climbing the academic ladder is like becoming the goblin king, you’ve got to bump someone off and then fight for your life.

  36. Billy says:

    As an education student, I see countless lecturers, who are supposed to be teaching us, how to teach, but they haven’t stood in a real classroom in 30 years. I have science lecturers, who stand at the front of a hall, and basically read a textbook for 2 hours. When I have to travel for an hour to get to uni, I want to get more out of a class, than what I could do at home.

    One of the reasons i’m studying science education rather than A science degree majoring in physics, is due to a lack of career opportunity. I want to work with science, and pure science at that, but there is no funding in that area.

    Universities are multi-million dollar BUSINESSES, whose main outlook is the bottom line of their accountants book. They don’t need more funding, so much as a kick in the pants, to lower class sizes.

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