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  • Writer's pictureKane Murdoch

Winners and losers

Evening all, and welcome back to another week in the dream factory.

As you may recall, where I left off before Easter was with a question. Did you do your homework, or did you have a life? I hope the latter- good for you!

Anyhow, let's pick up shall we? Last week I asked:

If universities are an ecosystem, how do you think that system functions? I know there will be different models. Harvard is a hedge fund with stone facade, NCAA US universities are sports teams with book bags. But the basic teaching-research "nexus", how do you think that actually functions?

Firstly, I'd like to firstly correct an error on my part. it seems that Harvard does not have a hedge fund, but rather an endowment. However, considering that the pot of cash Harvard control is over 50 billion USD, basically it's a huge pile of funds for them to invest and receive returns on. Those returns (as well as grants, and teaching income are then invested in research, in facilities, and teaching. Similarly gargantuan pots of moolah are held by MIT, Stanford, Oxford, and Cambridge. OK, so when we take a look at the top 5 Times Higher Ed ranked unis, I think you get the gist.

So, when people talk about a nexus in higher education, it's not between research and teaching. I would actually argue that in many cases research is a negative on teaching, if the funds aren't there to have them happily co-exist. And if they don't then teaching will come off second best because the incentives are heavily weighted in favour of research.

However, unis in Australia don't work like the unis mentioned above. They don't have massive endowments. Philanthropic money they get is usually spent on buildings so someone can have their name splashed over it. They don't have government which supports research sensibly. For the whole country there's about 2 billion of research grants available each year. By way of comparison, that's the same amount of money distributed from the Harvard endowment to the university in 2022. This doesn't cover a whole bunch of stuff which leads to completed programs of research, especially in your particularly costly disciplines such as science, engineering and medicine. And so there's a gap, a sizeable gap, between the research $ available and costs to have those research $$ actually impact on rankings. And in this neo-liberal age of endless growth at any cost (thanks Thatcher) Australian unis, those little battlers of the international higher education scene, insist upon thrusting themselves up the rankings regardless of the fact that money is too tight to mention.

So if research dictates rankings outcomes, and research needs money and we don't have enough, but are still thrusting towards the rankings heavens, how do the little Aussie battlers achieve this magnificent feat? The answer is that we do it through teaching . Lots, and lots, of teaching. And our old pal, assessment. Lots of that too. And we attract lots of students to teach and assess.

In a feat of miraculous timing, there was an article published in the Aust version of the Guardian today which goes into some of it. It's another in the line of stories we've all read over the past months and years, of overwork, burnout, wages and theft. But that's not all! From the Guardian:

But in recent years, cost-cutting, an increase in casual work contracts and a move towards online and reused course content have all contributed to a hollowing out of the university sector.

So here's how universities work, basically, in brilliant powerpoint technicolor.

Essentially, costs of teaching and assessment are screwed down in order to generate a greater surplus which goes toward covering the difference between grant funding, and the cost of research. This then transforms into that currency of academia- citations - which then leads to promotions (weighted toward research output), which increases the chances of more grants, and therefore we need more students to fund the research. Siphon off some millions for shiny, shiny buildings, and 7 new Deputy Vice-Chancellors on hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, and that's where it lands. Obviously when "Student success" is a KPI, there's no incentive to assess with more rigour, or to go looking for cheating. It's a happy back scratching exercise in many regards between students who pay, and senior academics/university "leaders" who reap the rewards. Teaching academics and other staff with massive workloads, casuals who have their wages stolen, the public who expect more from universities, all these folks are losers in the game. When I put it like that it's pretty depressing.

To me there's a fundamental contradiction in what universities do. When almost all academics are recruited for their research, but revenue depends on teaching, there's a problem. The number one thing the public desires of universities is high quality graduates, not research. And when the teaching orange has been squeezed so tightly that there's only human pulp left, when there's massive amounts of cheating, there's a problem. In my view rushing back to an idyllic past where academics have total control and freedom is just as bad as continuing to squeeze juice from the orange. What that looks like is the challenge, but something has to give.

'Til next time,


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